DEEPER FINDINGS: February job growth in metro Atlanta stronger than expected

After the usual January slump, Atlanta’s job growth rebounded in February, with gains in a number of sectors, including manufacturing. GEORGE FREY / BLOOMBERG

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After the usual January slump, Atlanta’s job growth rebounded in February, with gains in a number of sectors, including manufacturing. GEORGE FREY / BLOOMBERG

Metro Atlanta's economy bounced back from seasonal layoffs in January with a burst of jobs the next month, the Georgia Labor Department reported Thursday.

February’s numbers were better than might have been expected: 21,400 more jobs, across a number of sectors, were added to the economy. For the previous five years, Atlanta had added an average of 13,100 jobs in February — 8,300 fewer than in 2019. Moreover, the national jobs report showed the U.S. economy barely added any jobs at all — 20,000 — during the month.

The unemployment rate for the region, which had risen to 4.2 percent, dropped last month to 3.8 percent. Jobless claims were lower than the same time a year ago, according to Mark Butler, state labor commissioner.

“We’ve started strong in 2019,” he said. “That is very good to see.”

Locally, the most robust expansion came in the corporate sector, which added 8,700 jobs. But there was continued growth in health care and construction, which took a hit nationally last month. In metro Atlanta, both sectors are benefiting from the expansion of Northside Cherokee Hospital. The work on the building has created about 50 construction jobs, according to Collins Project Management. And when completed, Northside will add 40 positions, including nurses and support staff, according to Katie Pearson, director of operations at the hospital.

One of the few sectors losing jobs was the category for logistics and retail – possibly a sign that consumer spending has retreated and that tariffs are crimping some international trade.

"Last year, I said that bricks and mortar retail was down, but e-commerce was up," said Larry Feinstein, chief executive of Hire Dynamics staffing, which places more than 9,000 workers a week, the majority of them in metro Atlanta. "Now, even the retailers good at e-commerce seem to be a little down."

But manufacturing – still a significant part of Atlanta's economy with about 174,000 employees – has been churning along, he said. "Maybe because, when you are making it in the United States, for customers in the U.S., you are not affected by tariffs."

Staffing agencies often see turns in the economy first, since companies will add or cut temporary workers when they see changing demand but are not sure it’s a trend. Feinstein said that he’s not seeing dramatic moves in either direction.

"I don't feel like there's a recession coming, and I don't feel like there's going to be a boom either."

Metro Atlanta in the past year added 66,500 jobs, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the jobs added in Georgia.

The number of unemployed – out of work and looking for a job – has slid from about 133,000 in February 2018 to 115,000 last month.

The one puzzling aspect of the report was a dip in the labor force – that is, the people who are either working or looking for work. That total is down 1,473 from a year ago, the first February since 2010 in which that labor force measure has declined.

A shrinking labor force can be both a symptom of trouble and a cause of woe. Sometimes, the labor force drops becauseof retirements, or because young people are fleeing the area for more vibrant markets. In bad times, discouraged job-seekers stop looking if rejected too many times.

But that doesn’t seem to be the problem now.

In fact, employers say that they are hiring, but that it has become harder to find good workers.

“As a result (of the shortage), some companies are getting better at productivity or automation, so they just require fewer people,” Feinstein said. “I work with a food manufacturer that introduced automation. They eliminated a couple jobs, although they added a higher skilled job because of the automation.”

Metro Atlanta sectors that expanded during the month

  • Corporate (professional and business services), 8,700 jobs.
  • Education and healthcare, 3,400 jobs.
  • Construction, 2,600
  • Manufacturing, 2,400
  • Government, 1,600
  • Finances, 900
  • Leisure and Hospitality, 800
Source: Georgia Department of Labor

Metro Atlanta jobs added, February

  • 2014: 2,900
  • 2015: 14,700
  • 2016: 13,600
  • 2017: 16,700
  • 2018: 17,700
  • 2019: 21,400
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Unemployment rate, February

  • Current: 3.8 percent (2019)
  • Highest: 10.6 percent (2010)
  • Lowest: 3.3 percent (2001)
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Unemployment rates in metro Atlanta counties, February

  • Clayton: 4.8 percent
  • Fulton: 4.0 percent
  • DeKalb: 3.9 percent
  • Gwinnett: 3.5 percent
  • Cobb: 3.4 percent
Source: Georgia Department of Labor