Atlanta jobless rate lowest since late 2008

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate in September — 8.4 percent — dropped to its lowest level in nearly four years, a sign of continuing improvement in the local job market.

Other indicators of metro Atlanta’s unemployment scene — fewer layoffs and unemployment insurance claims, a growing labor force — also herald better economic times, according to statistics released Thursday by the Georgia Department of Labor.

“We’re still seeing growth a little slower than we would like, but the good news is that we have fewer layoffs than normal this time of year, and more jobs right now than at this time last year,” said labor commissioner Mark Butler. “All of that is a plus.”

The September rate dipped from a revised 8.8 percent in August, a significant drop that could portend healthier hiring levels as the year winds down. CareerBuilder, a global, online job board, reported Thursday that 36 percent of retailers nationwide expect to hire workers around the holidays, up from 29 percent last year.

Those jobs could become permanent: 31 percent of metro Atlanta employers queried by CareerBuilder say they’ll turn the part-timers into full-timers.

Butler credits the lowered jobless rate to fewer manufacturing, construction, administrative and support-service layoffs.

Five Septembers ago, right before the recession officially began, Atlanta’s labor force stood at 2.7 million people — almost exactly the same number of workers and job-seekers as last month. In addition, nearly 4,500 fewer Atlantans filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance in September versus August.

“The numbers indicate our local economy is improving,” said William Smith, an economist at the University of West Georgia. “We gained more than 40,000 jobs over the last year and saw the unemployment rate fall 1.3 percent. Both of those numbers are moving in the right direction for a stronger recovery.”

But nothing in this herky-jerky economic recovery instills absolute confidence that Atlanta will return to the near-full-employment days prior to the recession’s onset. The region’s jobless rate has yo-yoed this year — up one month, down the next — between 9.1 percent and 8.4 percent. And thousands of Atlantans remain underemployed or have quit looking for work.

Butler and others warn that too-cautious employers, congressional failure to reach a budget deal, war in the Middle East or a European economic meltdown could scuttle the nascent jobs recovery.

But “if things continue going the way they are, we’ll continue to see Atlanta push forward,” the commissioner said.