From top to bottom, the metro Atlanta economy has been growing solidly and much of the action is at the poles: high skills and low.
The region has added 95,400 jobs in the past year, and the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.9 percent – the level of joblessness of the last month in 2007 before the recession.
Demand is good for lower-wage workers: hotel clerks, fast food counter help, warehouse shelf-stockers, construction laborers and the like.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you are skilled, educated and specialized, odds are you can find well-paying work in metro Atlanta. Especially if you have a little something extra on their resume — a certificate, say, in a particular software language.
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Growth in middle-wage jobs has been more tepid, and in some cases negative.
Mary Hill, 54, of Snellville, is an example of someone whose skills have opened doors. She has been doing contract work the past few years, but when she left a job after Thanksgiving she sought something more open-ended.
“I hadn’t been out not even two weeks and I was called,” she said. “My skill set matched the job perfectly.”
She took the job, “and within two weeks, I was getting other job offers.”
Hill does financial work, much of it accounting. A few years ago, she went back to school to pick up a degree.
That gave her an advantage, she said.
“In this line of work, when you have a degree, that is a real bargaining point. I have the opportunity to go where I want to go.”
She said she was told 20 people were competing for her job. “A lot of companies demand degrees and a lot of people don’t have them.”
The jobless rate for people with a bachelor’s degree is 2.8 percent, about half the rate for those with just a high school diploma and 8 percent for those without a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median pay for workers with a bachelor’s degree is $1,137 a week compared to $678 for those with only a high school diploma and $493 for those without the diploma.
The clearest sign of strong demand, of course, is higher pay.
Pay starting to climb
“We are seeing salaries go up, in general,” said Andy Decker, senior regional president for staffing company Robert Half. “At the high end, the skilled end of the market, we are not seeing enough candidates for jobs. We’ve got the largest labor pool ever in Georgia and there are still jobs going open.”
Financial specialists are almost always in demand. But many economists look to tech jobs as guides toward the future, since they tend to pay better and – at least potentially – add more fuel to growth. Areas with the most intense concentration of tech people have the upper hand, said John Deighton, professor of business at Harvard Business School.
“The United States is going through a radical shift in the economy, from an industrial to an information economy,” he said. “Regionally, the talent is the big issue.”
Confusion about the economy’s direction is not necessarily a bad thing, he said. “This is a very turbulent period and periods of turbulence are very good for employment.”
But whichever direction the economy takes, high-skill is the fuel for an area’s growth, Deighton said. “There hasn’t been any evidence in the past 100,000 years that technology is bad for the economy.”
The state has roughly 104,000 internet workers and the five core counties of metro Atlanta have 63,937 of them, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau study led by Deighton.
Three-quarters of the 150 employees at Sandy Springs-based Envistacom are engineers and other techies – and the company is looking to add at least 25 more, said Alan Carson, senior vice president and co-founder.
All their work is with the Defense Department, much of it in cyber-security, he said.
All businesses challenged
In Atlanta – and at a time when tech is advancing in unpredictable ways – the company doesn’t want to be limited by the number of people with the precise skills they want, Carson said.
“All businesses are faced with the challenge of finding the right people. At times we do struggle to find a particular tech person, but more than anything we focus on culture.”
But the lower-end is in demand too.
And the five jobs with the fastest pay growth are all non-tech positions that do not require advanced degrees, according to research company Glassdoor. Number one is construction laborer, where the median wage is up 9.4 percent during the past year. At No. 4 is warehouse associate, up 7.2 percent.
Ten years ago, leisure and hospitality represented 9.4 percent of the jobs in metro Atlanta. Now, the sector has grown by nearly 60,000 – an increase of 25 percent – and accounts for 10.6 percent of the region’s jobs.
Dave & Buster’s expects to hire 250 people for its new Alpharetta location across from the Northpoint Mall, said Rob Peterson, general manager for the Dallas-based chain of restaurant-entertainment complexes.
The pay ranges, depending on the position.
Changing the approach
With a larger share of people working, Dave & Buster’s has changed its approach from the days when candidates came from a huge pool of unemployed.
“Before, for a server, say, we used to require a minimum of two years’ experience. Now, it is more about the applicant’s personality,” Peterson said.
Like high-tech Envistacom, Dave & Buster’s is flexible if the skill it seeks is not available, he said. “If you have the right personality and ethics, we can teach you the skills.”
At Six Flags Over Georgia and sister company White Water, about 4,000 people are being hired this year, most part-time, seasonal workers said company spokesman Gene Petriello.
The workers include food servers and preparers, aquatic supervisors, ride attendants and entertainers.
“The job market has gotten better so there are fewer people applying than during the recession,” Petriello said. “But we still have a huge pool of people. Not as many people as when the unemployment rate was higher.”