Atlanta jobs, hiring look good: Why is the economy like a friend coming back from a bad illness?

Well, the numbers sure look good: metro Atlanta unemployment rate during March fell to 4.6 percent while the economy added 9,800 jobs during the month.

We're back to job growth like that of the housing boom from 2002-2007, jobless rates like what we saw back then. So we're good right?

Well, sorta.

The economy is a little like a friend who has had a strong recovery after a very bad illness. They look just great, but they don’t have the energy they used to and there are weaknesses in ways that you may not see.

No question that the Atlanta economy is in vastly better shape than it was when layoffs were a tsunami, when the unemployment rate was in double-digits, when thousands of people simply gave up looking for work (making the jobless rate much lower than it would have been if they were counted).

But to say it’s normal and robust would be wrong.

Among the weaknesses that are not visible in those big numbers:

-- Share of people working. The more technical term is “labor force participation rate.” It was dropping even before the recession, but it fell hard once the economy tanked. In the past year, it has started to inch back, but it’s still way below what it was.

At the peak, 69.6 percent of the working-age population in Georgia was in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In March, 63.0 percent were in the workforce.

If Georgia had the same share of people working or looking for jobs as in 1999 and 2000, there would be 51,000 more people in the workforce.

--  Despite the low unemployment rate, about 139,000 people in metro Atlanta are still out of work and looking for a job. Worse, about 30 percent of them have been looking for at least six months.

It is a little strange -- and clearly not healthy -- to have that long-term joblessness and solid job growth at the same time.

-- Incomes aren’t exactly jumping. Oh sure, if you have the right kind of tech skills, then maybe you’re getting those healthy raises. But for many people, any increase is modest at best.

Slow growth in incomes is a sign that the labor market isn’t as tight as that low jobless rate would have you believe.

-- Several sectors that have typically offered jobs to blue collar Georgians have been wobbly. Manufacturing has barely held its own: it's up just 0.7 percent in the past year. Retail has been in turmoil with a number of stores cutting back and several chains closing.

The latest figures show department store employment slashed by 25 percent in the past decade.

-- Construction, which has been one of the faster-growing sectors, is a good place for well-paid blue collar jobs. But the sector accounts for a much smaller portion of jobs than it did a decade ago.

It is nine years after the recession started. Seven years after the start of hiring. And, whatever the lingering concerns, whatever the pace of the rebound, no question, things are better.

Economists often emphasize the importance of seeing the long-term trajectory of the economy, since any one month's data can be unreliable. The longer trend has been positive: during the past year, the metro Atlanta economy has added 103,100 jobs.

Atlanta continues to account for most of the state’s job growth.

Moreover, roughly 146,000 people in metro Atlanta are counted as unemployed – that is, they are out of work and also looking for a job. So when jobless workers give up searching or go back to school, the unemployment rate understates the amount of pain in the economy.

However, the share of people who are in the labor force has been inching up, according to the Department of Labor. That typically happens as hiring heats up and it seems to be happening now.

But the labor market has been steadily improving. Among the sectors adding jobs last month:

-- the corporate sector, known as professional and business services, up 1,800 jobs.

-- information, up 1,100 jobs.

-- construction, up 2,700 jobs.

-- financial services, up 400 jobs.


Metro Atlanta, Unemployment rate, March

2007, 3.9 percent

2008, 5.1 percent

2009, 9.3 percent

2010, 10.2 percent

2011, 9.7 percent

2012, 9.0 percent

2013, 7.8 percent

2014, 7.0 percent

2015, 5.7 percent

2016, 5.1 percent

2017, 4.6 percent

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor