Job growth in metro Atlanta has been substantial, so finding a job is much easier than a few years ago. But finding one that pays well is harder. Here, FBI Special Agent, recruiter Charles Orgbon Jr (left) talks with Desiree Harvey-Lovell during a recent job fair at the Georgia International Convention Center. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Atlanta’s growth numbers hide big divide

Metro Atlanta’s healthy economic growth since the Great Recession has been an uneven blessing.

It brought new high-tech companies and thousands of good-paying jobs, but also thousands more with modest paychecks that leave nearly half the region’s workers struggling.

Recent wage figures provide a snapshot of some ways the economy has grown, how it has grown differently and where it has grown.

The expansion that began in 2010 made Atlanta the eighth-largest jobs market in the United States. The big economic numbers are nearly all upbeat, even impressive: Since hitting bottom in 2010 after the Great Recession, metro Atlanta has added 638,800 jobs; that’s more than 28 states added in the same period. Unemployment, which peaked at 10.6% in the wake of the recession, dropped to less than 3%.

A series of big companies invested heavily in the city, bringing tens of thousands of professionals to Atlanta as new strengths in technology – especially in financial tech – emerged. The addition of jobs in engineering, data, artificial intelligence and software development have reshaped the labor force, and the geography of business growth.

During the 1990s boom, especially, telecom companies like AT&T, built offices far from the city.

The post-recession surge largely reversed a decades-long flow of jobs and professionals to the suburbs. Companies like Accenture, Microsoft, Google, Anthem, Blackrock and Honeywell dropped tens of millions of dollars on innovation and research centers in and around Midtown.

Incubators and start-upstended to be in Atlanta, and so did the spin-offs they produced.

In metro Atlanta – as in the United States – the highest average pay for a large jobs sector goes to financial services, followed by information jobs, which include many tech positions. Proportionally more of those new jobs are in town than before the recession.

“Fulton County employment and average weekly wage have risen faster than the Atlanta metro area as a whole,” said Michael Wald, an Atlanta economist formerly with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Moreover, the Fulton data includes jobs that sprawled up the Ga. 400 corridor to Alpharetta, often to be closer to where executives wanted to live.

“At the same time, Gwinnett County’s employment and average weekly wage have risen slower than both the metro area and Fulton County,” Wald said. “So Gwinnett County started with less employment and lower average weekly wage and has fallen behind in the past decade becoming more unequal rather than more equal.”

In some ways, the intown moves brings the job market full circle. A couple generations ago, jobs in Atlanta were concentrated in the city’s downtown. With Atlanta’s suburban growth – and construction of I-285 and Ga. 400 – jobs sprawled north along with much of the growing population.

The new tech-centric, corporate-heavy growth brought success but also deepened the divide between the top and bottom of the job market. The growth attracted other new businesses such as restaurants and bars to serve the new workers that have moved into the city, but pay less. A vast number of Georgians work in positions that do not pay well at all, according to government data.

“It’s a time of change in the labor market,” said Nicole Bateman, research analyst at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a recent paper about pay. “There are changes in the labor market, changes in the nature of work.”

More work is automated, more workers are contractors rather than on a company payroll. There are more “gig” jobs, assigned by algorithms in unpredictable ways for uncertain compensation.

Roughly one out of five of the jobs added in metro Atlanta this year will be “premium” positions, paying about $60,000 or more, according to an analysis by the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center.

But about four of ten metro Atlanta workers – 921,000 people – are considered low-wage, making $15.40 an hour or less, often with no benefits, according to Bateman’s research. That comes out to $32,000 a year.

It’s not surprising that jobs such in hospitality and healthcare jobs like home health aides tend to be low-paying. But some jobs that require more education have not kept pace with the economy, she said.

Teaching, for example.

“We didn’t expect them to show up so often as low-wage — not all of them are, of course — but there is a higher share than we expected.”

Nationally, more than one of every four teachers is categorized as low-wage, Bateman said. “This is true in Atlanta, as well. Teaching is the most common occupation among low-wage workers with a post-secondary degree (between the ages of 25 and 64).”

Each school system sets its own salary scale. Starting elementary teachers make for example $39,757 in Clayton County and $46,646 a year in Gwinnett County. The Brookings data includes pre-school teachers, as well as special education teachers.

The pay gap between the low-wage workers and the surging salaries for those near the top makes Atlanta “the capital of U.S. inequality for the second year in a row,” according to a recent Bloomberg News analysis of large American cities.

It says among Atlanta’s top 5% of households, average income was more than $663,000, compared to families in the bottom half of the population, which had income less than $65,000.

However, the authors acknowledged that some cities had less gap between lower- and higher-paid residents – that is, lower inequality – because their economies were stagnant and there had been little growth in good-paying jobs.

Atlanta’s low-wage workers are older than the national average for people in those positions, which may be a sign that people get stuck in low paying jobs here and that the higher-paying positions are taken by newcomers to Atlanta, Bateman said.

So even if Atlanta’s success is a prime reason inequality is more extreme, it would be a mistake to neglect the size of the low-wage workforce, she said.

“I think it connects to larger questions of inequality. Women and people of color are more likely to be among the lower-wage workers. And they are less likely to move out of low-wage work.”

“This information is important to pay attention to because it speaks to our overall economic health.”

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