Georgia posted modest jobs growth in May, after two months of declines

Addition of 2,600 jobs represents weakest May since 2013
A nurse tends to a patient: Healthcare hiring was strong last month, according to the Georgia Labor Department. (Dominic Valente/The New York Times)

A nurse tends to a patient: Healthcare hiring was strong last month, according to the Georgia Labor Department. (Dominic Valente/The New York Times)

After two consecutive months of job losses, Georgia's economy grew modestly in May, adding about 2,600 jobs, according to a report Thursday from the state's Labor Department.

The unemployment rate held steady at 3.8%, another sign that the state's economy has leveled off.

It was the slowest job growth of any May since 2013, and the weakest January-to-May period since the long expansion began in 2010. Net job growth was zero in the first four months of 2019.

Georgia’s performance in May paralleled the nation’s, which was reported earlier this month: A middling gain in jobs, as if the economic engine had only slipped into a lower gear, with no pickup in layoffs and no sign of a stall-out.

And Mark Butler, state labor commissioner, on Thursday emphasized the longer view: In the past 12 months, Georgia has added about 69,000 jobs.

“The long-term trends continue to go in the right directions,” Butler said. “We continue to grow jobs and keep our unemployment rate low.”

As usual, metro Atlanta accounted for more than half of the jobs growth.

Despite fears about trade wars and interest rates, the U.S. economic expansion is poised to become the longest on record. But with low unemployment, it becomes increasingly harder to find workers to generate more growth.

"The bubble may burst at some point, but right now it is still a very tight labor market," said Casey Halliburton, managing director of Atlanta-based ExecuSource, a staffing and recruiting agency. "As for a slowdown, the question is not 'If,' the question is 'When?'"

Growth has decelerated with the strength in Georgia’s economy somewhat uneven.

Two sectors that were strong for the month, according to the report: construction and healthcare, which include many solid, blue-collar jobs. The growth of the two may be linked, said Robert Murray, chief economist at Dodge Data & Analytics, which analyzes construction industry trends.

“A lot of the big projects are healthcare-related activity,” he said.

In contrast to those sectors, there was no sign of robust hiring last month in the high-paying corporate sector. That could mean that the trade troubles with Mexico and China are – at least temporarily – stifling the growth of the state’s larger, global companies.

"The unknown is what is happening with the tariffs," Murray said. "It is possible that the tariff situation with China will get worse."

Another barometer for growth is also signaling caution: The number of people in the labor force, which typically surges in times of robust hiring and growth, declined last month by 4,900.

The pattern – cautious growth, no flurry of layoffs – seems to be national, and the Federal Reserve's rate-setting committee this week signaled a readiness to once again cut interest rates in an effort to juice growth. A growing consensus of economists predict rates will fall by the end of the year.

The trade battles are one reason – but not the only one – that costs are going up, said Dan Kaufman, president of the east region for JE Dunn Construction, one of the nation's largest contractors.

“You have to pay more for labor and that cascades down through the project, which ultimately affects affordability, and as prices rise, that slows things down,” he said. “At a certain point, there’s less available labor in the market and that is a cautionary sign. It’s not flashing red – it’s more of a yellow to watch.”

Business now is very good, with the company's average project running a budget of $45 million and J.E. Dunn reporting record revenue this year, Kaufman said.

But experience tells him to be cautious, he said. "We lived through the period of 2006 through 2009."

There was huge demand as construction of all kinds boomed, he said. “And then, that disappeared overnight.”

Georgia job growth, January through May

2010: 22,000

2011: 28,200

2012: 35,500

2013: 31,500

2014: 59,200

2015: 35,000

2016: 36,400

2017: 12,800

2018: 31,900

2019: 2,600

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Georgia unemployment rate, May

2010: 10.4%

2011: 10.3%

2012: 9.4%

2013: 8.4%

2014: 7.3%

2015: 6.1%

2016: 5.3%

2017: 4.8%

2018: 4.0%

2019: 3.8%

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Georgia jobs, so far this year

Jan: +10,300

Feb: +5,300

March: -700

April: -14,900

May: +2,600

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics