Atlanta jobs: a story of upbeat caution

Region adds 10,700 jobs in March; jobless rate remains at 3.2 % for the month

Atlanta’s economic optimism has turned a bit cautious.

Hiring is solid if unspectacular, but layoffs are few — signs that employers are aware of potential economic trouble and don’t want to be overextended. But they also have plenty of business now and don’t want to find themselves suddenly scrambling to fill positions in a market where good workers can be hard to find.

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate remained at 3.2% in March, the Georgia Department of Labor reported Thursday.

“The production managers, hiring folks and HR people are very concerned with keeping the workforce that they have, because it’s so hard to find quality people,” said Fritz Valsaint, co-owner of the Spherion staffing office in South Fulton. “Training is expensive. Every time you turn over an employee, that is an expense.”

The region added 10,700 jobs during the month, less than average during a pre-pandemic March, the Georgia Department of Labor said.

That reflects a concern that the Federal Reserve’s campaign to raise interest rates, along with turmoil in banking, might stifle growth, spark a recession that would dampen demand for many goods and services, Valsaint said. “So companies may be taking longer to pull the trigger on hiring more.”

The number of job postings for metro Atlanta has fallen by 16% since the start of December, according to job site Indeed.

New jobless claims last month were lower than in February, but were 17% higher than a year earlier, as the number of unemployed rose by 1,880 to 105,097, the Georgia Department of Labor said.

And while the jobless rate is still near historic lows, some sizeable job cuts have been announced that don’t yet figure into unemployment statistics.

David’s Bridal this month is cutting 193 workers at several different locations. Bed Bath & Beyond, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, has given notice of plans to lay off 1,000 workers at a Pendergrass distribution center in June. That same month, SSB Manufacturing will cut 180 workers in Waycross. Also this summer, NFI Interactive Logistics is laying off 50 in McDonough.

In recent months, some high-profile tech companies have cut thousands of jobs, including Meta, Amazon, Twitter and Microsoft, all with significant Atlanta presence.

But there is always churn in the economy and thus far, hiring has outpaced cuts.

Laid-off techies are still in demand, even if they may be paid less than they received from the big-name players, said Jason Wachtel, managing partner at JW Michaels & Co., a recruiter. “Atlanta remains very strong. I think the job market is tighter than in other cities. And the overall job market is still very tight if you are skilled.”

To handle demand during a downturn, companies typically use contractors who can be easily cut. But now, many companies are hiring permanent workers rather than contractors, he said. “It’s like, ‘We have so much work, we need people to do it and if we make you a permanent hire that’s a little more sticky, you’re less likely to leave.’”

Metro Atlanta now has 209,100 more jobs than before the pandemic, a 7.4% increase, but some sectors are still making up for the massive losses during the shutdowns of 2020. Leisure and hospitality reached pre-pandemic job levels only in the past two months and now has just 10,200 more jobs than pre-pandemic — 3.4% up.

Total consumer spending in Georgia is up 18.9% from early 2020, according to Harvard University researchers. Restaurant spending is up 9.2%, but spending on entertainment has jumped 25.6%, researchers found.

Partly because of that increased demand, but also because so many hospitality workers left for other kinds of work, hiring in the sector was more robust than any other last month, according to Labor Commissioner Bruce Thompson.

Second-fastest growing was health care and social assistance, which added 3,400 jobs.

Whatever employers might be thinking, people who have been out of the labor force seem to be optimistic enough to return in search of jobs. The area’s labor force grew twice as fast as typical for March, up 19,267 in March and 56,150 compared to last year.

But even a modest hesitation in hiring or a small layoffs can have an outsized impact on workers who might have had trouble getting a job in the first place, said Ray Khalfani, policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“Lately we’ve seen a steady rise in unemployment for Black workers in Georgia,” he said.

Metro Atlanta jobs in March

Best, pre-pandemic: +22,500 (2000)

Worst, pre-pandemic: -9,600 (2009)

Average, pre-pandemic: +13,400

Recent: +10,700 (2023)

Metro Atlanta unemployment rate

Highest, pre-pandemic: 11.1% (June 2009)

Lowest, pre-pandemic: 2.6% (Dec. 2000)

Recent: 3.2% (2023)

Sectors with strongest March growth

Accommodation and food services: 4,500 jobs

Health care and social assistance: 3,400 jobs

Wholesale trade: 1,600 jobs

Change in March labor force

Most: +26,187 (2016)

Fewest: -7,384 (2010)

Recent: +19,267 (2023)

Average, pre-pandemic: +7,683

Pace of wage growth

Overall: 6.4%

Job switchers: 7.3%

Job stayer: 5.9%

*Labor force includes people with jobs plus those actively seeking work

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta