Metro jobless rate near six-year low

The jobless rate in metro Atlanta slid last month to 6.5 percent – the lowest since July 2008 – as employers added 18,000 jobs, state labor officials said Thursday.

The region still has 30 percent more unemployed people than it did going into the recession in late 2007, and wages have been largely stagnant. But the trajectory of the economy is encouraging after more than a year of steady, if unspectacular, growth.

“Georgia is outperforming the nation, even if at a slightly slower pace than I had hoped for,” said Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. “And metro Atlanta is moving pretty much in lockstep with the rest of the state.”

A year ago, the metro Atlanta jobless rate was 7.7 percent.

Job growth has come through a mix of jobs that pay well, such as those in software technology, and those that do not, like many positions in leisure and hospitality. The region has also seen a pickup in the long comatose construction industry.

Of the major sectors, only government jobs have been in decline.

Prospects for the rest of the year are relatively bright, Humphreys said. “It’s a good balance of growth.”

Four years ago, metro Atlanta’s jobless rate peaked at 10.7 percent. More than a quarter of a million people were unemployed. By last month, that figure had fallen to 178,629. However, that doesn’t count anyone who has stopped looking for work.

The choppy market rewards those who can learn the skills in demand.

Navy veteran David Sinclair of Ellenwood, was one of 14 vets chosen last year for a work-study program run by Workforce Opportunity Services through Georgia Tech. Sinclair, 31, who focused on software and became a network expert, had been a truck driver before he started the WOS program, he said.

“The day I was accepted to the program, I turned in my keys,” he said.

He graduated this week into a job at Hewlett-Packard in Alpharetta.

“I come from a blue collar family and I was always told that you earn an honest day’s pay with an honest day’s work,” Sinclair said. “It turns out that the most important and most lucrative muscle you’ve got is your brain.”

The market also rewards persistence – though the compensation can be modest.

Chanda Baptist moved last fall to Atlanta only to be frustrated in her job search: Pretty much the only way to search for work was online.

“You don’t get a chance to talk with anybody, you’re not able to sell yourself … you are just a name on a computer,” said Baptist, 43.

Because she had no job and no money, she and her young daughter were living in her car, and she had no computer. She spent a lot of time at St. Vincent de Paul’s Sullivan Center, which offers free Internet access.

Eventually she landed a job at Kroger. It doesn’t pay much more than minimum wage and she does not work as many hours as she’d like yet.

But it’s a start, Baptist said: “I had almost given up.”

Among area counties, the lowest jobless rate is Forsyth with 5.1 percent, followed by Cherokee and Dawson at 5.3 percent and Gwinnett at 5.8 percent. The highest metro rate is in Clayton at 8.3 percent, according to the Labor Department.

The unemployment rate would be higher but for people who have stopped looking: the total number of people in the labor force is still about 30,000 fewer than before the recession. Nearly half of people without work said they had given up looking, according to a survey commissioned by Express Employment Professionals, a national staffing company.

In contrast, the proportion of people in the workforce typically rises when hiring is strong. During the 1990s, for instance, more people entered the workforce even as the unemployment rate plunged below 3 percent.

Stacey Hopkins, 51, Hapeville, has been looking for a long time and hasn’t given up.

Hopkins had more than a decade of jobs in real estate offices, leaving the business for family reasons just before the housing bubble burst. In 2010, she wanted to go back to work.

“Obviously, my previous line of work had dried up,” she said. “Now I’m looking for administrative jobs.”

Her husband works but would like to retire. With two teenagers at home, they need more of a cushion, she said. “You get to the point where you are starting to get a little desperate.”

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