Lowest unemployment rate in half a century? Not in Atlanta

City still has way to go to reach 2000 record low of 2.6%
Atlanta unemployment is low, but it was lower in 2000. That was Chipper Jones’ seventh year with the Braves. He hit .311 with 36 homers. (AJC file photo)

Atlanta unemployment is low, but it was lower in 2000. That was Chipper Jones’ seventh year with the Braves. He hit .311 with 36 homers. (AJC file photo)

The national unemployment rate in April dropped to its lowest level since 1969.

But you don’t have to go that far back to find Atlanta’s all-time low.

Hiring in Atlanta has been strong since 2010, driving the jobless rate from double digits to 3.6% in March. And the rate has dropped in 14 of the past 15 Aprils, so another dip seems likely when the government reports metro Atlanta's latest numbers.

Even so, it probably won’t fall all the way to Atlanta’s lowest rate on record: 2.6%, which the metro area nailed – twice – in 2000.

"We were growing much faster than the national economy then," said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. "We are still growing faster but we are not head-and-shoulders above the nation's growth."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that the U.S. employment rate dropped to 3.6% in April from 3.8% in March, with companies hiring more workers to service an expanding economy. Atlanta job numbers will be released May 23.

Atlanta saw bigger swings in 1990s and 2000s than the U.S.

From 1991 to 2001, U.S. payrolls expanded a robust 20.1%. Metro Atlanta’s job growth made that look lethargic: Jobs here during that decade surged 43.3%.

A range of factors stoked Atlanta’s hectic growth in the roaring 1990s, including the tech boom, which fueled demand for housing and consumer-driven businesses like restaurants and retail. The local development boom - and its attendant risks - was chronicled in “A Man in Full,” Tom Wolfe’s famous 1998 novel.

At the same time, the economy was weaker in many parts of the country, especially the densely populated Northeast. Many Americans looked to Atlanta as a place of opportunity, flocking here by the tens of thousands each year.

The collapse of the tech boom hurt, with Atlanta losing many jobs. But construction barely paused, and as the economy again picked up, Atlanta quickly emerged as one of the top markets for homebuilding. The metro region added up to 50,000 houses a year in the early and mid-2000s, and hiring again outpaced the nation.

Then, that bubble burst.

The entire country slid into a recession in December 2007, but the plunge was sharper and the pain more pervasive in metro Atlanta than most other regions. And even though that was a decade ago and hiring has been steady now for nine years, the intensity of the housing crisis helps explain why Atlanta’s unemployment rate isn’t as low as it could be.

“The recession hit much harder here,” said UGA’s Humphreys. “So, we had much more ground to make up.”

And while the current expansion is strong, it isn’t as frenetic as the go-go 1990s. “The information sector right now is really sort of struggling in Atlanta,” he said.

Moreover, today there are many regions doing well. Few states are struggling in a way that sends unemployed residents to Google in search of the online Help Wanted signs. Instead of a flood of new residents, Atlanta is seeing a much smaller stream.

The state of Georgia has largely paralleled Atlanta's performance. But its engine has been Atlanta and a few other cities, while many rural areas have lagged. The state's unemployment rate in March was 3.9%, compared with an all-time low – also in 2000 – of 3.4%. Georgia's April unemployment rate will be published May 16.

You have to go back to 1969 for a national unemployment rate lower than it is right now. Back in 1969, the Braves played their fourth season in Atlanta. Their leading hitter that year was Rico Carty. He hit .342. (AJC file photo)

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Can Atlanta’s jobless rate go still lower?

The 1990s was the longest economic boom in U.S. history. Unless something traumatic intervenes, the current expansion will break that record this summer.

Atlanta's growth has been relatively balanced. Construction has boomed but is not carrying the economy by itself. Corporate offices have hired steadily. Meanwhile, low-wage jobs like those in hospitality and logistics have been plentiful.

Of course there are risks – something eventually will kill the expansion.

Success breeds its own problems. For example, the boom has meant rapidly rising prices for Atlanta homes and apartments, outpacing many incomes. That squeezes many young professionals and shuts out many blue-collar workers.

And there are trade tensions. President Donald Trump threatened on Sunday to raise tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods by Friday.

Metro Atlanta's face may be white-collar corporate, with many Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Home Depot, but the region is undergirded by tens of thousands of jobs at the airport, in warehouses and trucking. They depend on the constant flow of global goods.

"One thing that is different this time is the trade war with China," said UGA's Humphreys. "That's a concern."

Still, near-term prospects are positive, economists say. Many expect the economy to keep expanding, adding jobs and pushing the unemployment rate lower.

Does that mean that Atlanta could see a new record low for its unemployment rate?

“We definitely could,” said Humphreys. “If the expansion continues for some time.”