Georgia lags in bringing down jobless rate

Georgia’s jobless rate never rose as high as neighboring states’ during the Great Recession and its desultory aftermath. But it’s also not falling as quickly as the recovery grinds on.

Four years since the recession’s end, Georgia – with Atlanta as the one-time star of the New South economy – struggles to separate itself from highly competitive neighbors that now post lower unemployment rates.

Only Tennessee has made less progress than Georgia in lowering its jobless rate over the last year. And only North Carolina still has a higher unemployment rate than Georgia — though it, too, has whittled the rate faster than Georgia.

“People are saying unemployment is getting better, but I’m not seeing it,” said Mary Katherine Dunn of Stockbridge, jobless since graduating from college 18 months ago. “I think of …Atlanta as a huge, important city with all these jobs. So I’m perplexed. I wonder about other jobs in other states.”

Georgia’s stagnation is reflected in the latest jobless numbers issued Thursday by the Georgia Department of Labor. The state jobless rate ticked down to 8.7 percent from 8.8 percent in August. That came after summer layoffs produced three straight months of increases in the rate.

Fewer layoffs and the return of school workers in August attributed to the slight decline, the labor department reported. But the private sector – the engine of any sustained economic recovery — shed 7,700 jobs.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler labeled Thursday’s report “obviously good news after the last two or three months. We will continue to see a downward trend in the months ahead.”

He expects an unemployment rate of about 7.5 percent a year from now. And, Butler adds, the unemployment rate isn’t always the best indicator of a state’s economic health. It may not even be the best tool to gauge job activity.

The unemployment rate measures the percentage of the total labor force that is unemployed but actively seeking work. It can go down if people get jobs — but also if they quit looking. It can go up if people lose jobs — or flock to a state in search of work.

Economist Mark Vitner, a native Atlantan who works for Wells Fargo Securities in North Carolina and publishes economic snapshots of Southern states, recently wrote about Georgia that “employment conditions continue to gradually grapple their way back to a healthier place.”

In an interview he added: “Georgia is an interesting case right now. The unemployment rate spiked in July, but job growth overall did better than the nation as a whole the last year.”

Georgia, like most Southern states, has ridden the unemployment rollercoaster since the Great Recession began in December 2007, when the rate stood at 5.1 percent. It peaked at 10.4 percent in late 2009 and early 2010 before falling, in fits and starts, to August’s 8.7 percent.

In all, the rate has dropped 1.7 percentage points from its peak.

In Alabama, the rate has fallen more than four points off its peak. South Carolina notched a similar drop-off. Relatively little in-migration, Vitner says, keeps unemployment levels down in both states.

In Florida, the jobless rate has fallen 4.3 percentage points. In July, the latest available month for statistics, Florida’s unemployment rate was 7.1 percent.

Florida had been hit hard by the slowdown in construction and tourism. Both industries, bolstered by a weak dollar which attracts Brazilian, Canadian and European visitors and second-home buyers, have rebounded smartly. Every Florida county, according to Wells Fargo, has seen the unemployment rate fall during the previous year.

“Florida is the shining state in the region,” said Ahu Yildirmaz, an economist with the ADP Research Institute in New Jersey. “Construction is a really big driver. But trade, mostly from the retail side and consumer spending, also shows healthy growth.”

Business investment offers a solid barometer of a state’s health. If a company senses an improving economy, it will likely open shops and hire people.

RaceTrac, the Atlanta-based gas and convenience store chain, has opened 22 stores in Florida and nine in Georgia since July 2012, according to Whitney Woodward, vice president for human resources. Each store employs about 20 people. RaceTrac plans to open another four stores in Florida, and one in Georgia, by mid-2014.

Vitner isn’t as impressed with Florida’s economy or jobs prospect.

“In Georgia’s case, the most telling statistic to me is non-farm employment growth,” he said. “Georgia’s got it and most places don’t.”

Florida added 143,700 non-farm jobs between July 2012 and July 2013. That was good enough for a 1.9 percent growth rate.

Georgia added 113,200 jobs during that period – a 2.9 percent rate. And the jobs were spread across many industries, including professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, education, health, transportation and construction.

Butler, the labor commissioner, said North Carolina is Georgia’s main Southeastern rival for the high-tech jobs all states covet. It shoulders an 8.9 percent unemployment rate and grapples with many of the same economic vicissitudes that confront Georgia— huge losses in rural manufacturing jobs and a steady influx of urban newcomers .

“My dream location would be North Carolina,” said Dunn, a part-time nanny in Macon and substitute teacher in Henry County. “But I’ve got a friend up there and she’s having just as much trouble as I am. It’s a distant dream now.”

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