Still, the increase raises the jobless rate higher than it has been in two years, and it was the largest July-to-August increase since the government started keeping track in 1990. And, more ominously, the higher rate is at odds with historical patterns in strong economies.
The unemployment rate did rise in August 1999 when workers were hard to find and growth was robust, but it more often drops or holds steady during the month. When unemployment rose in 1990, 2001 and 2008, the economy was in recession.
But the much-feared downturn isn’t here yet: while the pace of hiring has slowed, metro Atlanta has added 54,000 jobs in the past year, according to the Department of Labor.
The biggest obstacle to expansion has been the Federal Reserve’s aggressive campaign to hike short-term interest rates. Its 2-year effort has pushed other lenders to raise their own rates, making everything from car loans to credit cards to mortgages more costly.
One sign of deceleration is in the time it takes to fill positions.
It took an average of about 45 days to fill job openings in August, down 10% from six months earlier, according to Revelio Labs, a New York-based firm that analyzes employment data.
Another measure of a labor market is churn — the more worker-friendly the market, the quicker they are to quit. And while turnover rates are still high, they have declined 12% in the past year.
Yet there isn’t a huge pool of jobless people the way there is during a recession, and with many boomers leaving the workforce, many employers still struggle to find the people they need.
“We have been hearing for a year about a coming recession, but the job market has remained resilient,” said Jason Wachtel, managing partner of JW Michaels, a search and recruitment firm. “I think the shock of those higher rates has been internalized. I think the worst is behind us.”
When schools reopened and executives returned from vacations, hiring picked up, he said. “The number of open jobs we have are up about 25% in Atlanta in the last two months. So, I think you’ll see better numbers in September.”
Skilled labor is still in high demand, Wachtel said. “You can’t find a plumber. You can’t find air-conditioning technicians. Nurses — 100%, you can write your own ticket and you can work anywhere in the country you want to.”
Health care has consistently accounted for a large share of job openings, according to the Department of Labor, partly because of an acute shortage in nursing. Among the 10 largest metros, Atlanta ranks ninth for the share of nurses per capita and has the fifth-highest pay, an average of $43.40 an hour, according to government statistics.
“The salaries of nurses in Georgia are not as alarming as our overall numbers of nurses,” said Chelsea Hagopian, executive director of the Georgia Nursing Workforce Center.
The center this week announced plans to move into the Emory School of Nursing, part of ramped-up plans to study the shortage and make recommendations for solutions.
While pay is not the only way to fill open slots, it is often a key factor. So, in sectors where workers are in short supply, the need to lure applicants and keep current employees from quitting has meant higher wages and better benefits.
The Bank of America, which has 5,580 employees in Georgia, announced Wednesday that it is raising minimum pay to $23 an hour with plans for a boost to $25 by 2025. That is up from $15 in 2017.
Overall wage growth currently averages an annual pace of 5.3%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
A year ago, inflation was eating up many raises, and while it’s fallen, a lot of Americans feel like they are still catching up, said economist Philip Vinson of Georgia Gwinnett College.
“If you take a bird’s-eye view of the economy, the numbers look pretty good, even historically good,” he said. “But when you talk to people, they don’t like it. You can get a job and have your wages go up, but it doesn’t feel good when you are immediately spending it on rent.”
A year ago, most economists thought the Fed couldn’t tame inflation without flipping the economy into the ditch, but inflation now is less than 4% and a “soft landing,” that is, prices leveling off without a recession, appears possible.
“It seems more likely than not,” Vinson said. “And that would be amazing and unprecedented.”
Metro Atlanta labor market in August
Highest, pre-pandemic: 11.0% (2009)
Lowest, pre-pandemic: 3.1% (1999)
Average, pre-pandemic: 5.6%
Recent: 3.7% (2023)
Best, pre-pandemic: 26,200 (2014)
Worst, pre-pandemic: -34,200 (1996)
Average, pre-pandemic: 18,190
Recent: 10,100 (2023)
Size of labor force
Smallest decrease, pre-pandemic: -4,170 (2002)
Largest decrease, pre-pandemic: -41,306 (2018)
Pre-pandemic average: -18,778
Recent: +7,202 (2023)
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics