Georgia’s recovery missing middle-wage jobs

The Georgia economy is not producing enough good-paying, middle-wage jobs — the kind that sustain a healthy middle class, according to government numbers compiled by a research group.

The state has gained jobs since the devastating recession of 2007-09, but a small proportion are the kind of middle-wage positions that historically provided opportunity and stability for many families, said Wesley Tharpe, policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“The mid-wage industries were hit the hardest in the recession and they are growing the slowest in the recovery,” he said.

Using income and jobs data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the GBPI defined a mid-wage job as one paying between about $31,600 and $57,500 a year.

About 138,100 fewer Georgians were employed in mid-wage industries last year than in 2007, Tharpe said. It is impossible to track what happened to individual workers, “but the numbers suggest that the available opportunities are shifting from the mid-wage to the low-wage.”

There is healthy demand for sales clerks, fast food help and some workers. And, for those who have the skills, there’s ample work at the high-wage end for engineers, financial analysts and doctors.

Experts argue about the cause of the shortfall in the middle, but the impact seems clear for workers in the middle: It’s much tougher to find a job.

Catherine Gitter, of Sandy Springs, had her eye on a research job that would pay more than $40,000 a year. She went through a series of interviews, took a three-day test and met with a vice president. And then a senior vice president.

“And after two months, they rejected me,” she said. “I really wanted that job. It is just frustrating. I have never had so much trouble in my life finding a job.”

Gitter, 35, has several degrees – including one in international affairs – but she took a couple years off to help with a family business. Now, when she applies for jobs doing research or data analysis, she finds herself jostling with many other qualified people.

“One company flew me out to Denver and I thought that meant they were really interested in me,” she said. “Then I found out they flew ten other people to Denver, too.”

Her husband is working, she said. “Otherwise, I would just be crying.”

The Georgia jobless rate peaked at 10.4 percent in the winter of 2009-10, but as job growth began, it fell steadily. The jobless rate in June was 7.4 percent.

The GBPI, a generally liberal policy and research group, looked at 97 industries and divided jobs according to wage:

— Low wage: $7.85 to $15.20 an hour, (or up to $31,600 a year).

— Mid-wage: $15.21 to $27.63 per hour, (or $31,600 to $57,500 a year).

— High wage: $27.64 to $45.98 an hour, (or $57,500 to $95,600 a year).

During its painful slide, the Georgia economy lost 388,032 jobs – slightly more than half of them middle-wage, according to the GBPI study. Since then, the state has added about 208,700 jobs, but middle-wage jobs accounted for just 15 percent of the jobs gained.

Some kinds of middle-wage jobs are on the rise.

Riggers, for example: people who handle much of the lifting, moving and set-up at shows, concerts, plays, sports events. Because of the growing film industry, there is more demand for riggers, said Neil Gluckman, 49, of Decatur.

“I can sit at home waiting for the phone to ring.”

Pay for rigger is squarely in the middle wage category, according to both the BLS and Gluckman. “It’s probably about $40,000 to $45,000 a year – we can make that.”

But there aren’t that many rigger jobs – perhaps 100 in metro Atlanta, he said.

William Roberts of Grant Park is looking for work in the non-profit sector.

Roberts, 27, who has a business degree from Georgia Tech and a Master of Divinity from Mercer, said he has ample experience but has been looking for work since 2012.

Employers act as if the odds let them be picky and callous, he said. “One would think someone who makes it through the initial culling of résumés and a questionnaire concerning the position could at least be sent an email saying they are no longer being considered.”

He’s currently waiting for final word on a development job finding sponsors for the organization’s work. The position would pay about $50,000.

Higher up the pay ladder, things look better.

The median pay for a dental hygienist in 2012 was $70,210, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of hygienist jobs will grow by 33 percent by 2022 – much faster than average – according to government projections.

Virginia Boyd, 36, of Brookhaven has worked as a part-time hygienist for 14 years and recently decided to look for a full-time position.

Using a mobile app for dental jobs that let her sort through offices and attitudes. She found one she liked, applied and got the job. She started a couple weeks ago.

“Even in the recession, when a lot of people were cutting back on lots of things, people were coming in to the (dental) office,” she said. “We were very lucky.”

The “hollowing out” of middle-wage jobs is national, said economist Jeffrey Wenger of the University of Georgia.

“The big debate is not whether or not it’s happening – everybody knows it’s happening. The big debate is: Why?”

The GBPI report laid much of the blame on the collapse of Georgia’s housing market, which took tens of thousands of construction and related jobs. The housing rebound has been too slow to replace those missing positions.

Economists cite other factors, among them technology. Decent jobs get taken by robots or other kinds of automation, while other jobs are eliminated by the Internet’s direct link to customers. Some economists say government policies – especially those that permit global trade to undermine American manufacturing — contribute.

Whatever the reasons, the lack of middle-wage jobs has kept the recovery from being stronger, Wenger said.

“If your household income is going down or is stagnant while prices are going up,” he said, “all kinds of spending will go by the wayside.”

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