Metro Atlanta added 18,600 jobs in December, returning to its pre-pandemic level with a burst of hiring across much of the economy.
The region, which last year added 141,000 jobs, finished 2021 with especially strong growth in transportation and warehousing, key to the handling, storage and delivery of goods, according to the state Department of Labor.
“Job numbers are up across Georgia,” said Mark Butler, the state labor commissioner.
Much of last month’s hiring happened before the omicron variant of COVID-19 tore through the Southeast. Economists warn the recent spike in infections could mean weaker job growth in early 2022.
Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate during December ticked up to 2.3% from 2.2% in November, but for an encouraging reason: workers were returning to the workforce.
The jobless rate, which only counts people looking for work, sometimes falls during recessions when discouraged workers stop seeking jobs and sometimes rises when hiring is brisk. December’s increase comes with job openings numerous and wages rising.
In recent months, the labor market in many sectors has been tilted to the advantage of workers, with more openings than job seekers, said Bert Bean, chief executive of Atlanta-based Insight Global, a national staffing company.
“People have never had this much bargaining power,” he said. “Wages are going up across the board. It is expensive to hire people right now.”
After catastrophic job losses early in the pandemic, the metro Atlanta economy has added nearly 400,000 jobs and now has slightly more than in February 2020.
“It’s solace,” said economist Tom Smith of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business. “We just climbed out of the ravine we fell into.”
Returning to that pre-pandemic level is an important mark of progress, he said. “But it isn’t mission accomplished. Just because you get back to the starting line doesn’t mean you have finished the race.”
In the five years before the pandemic, the number of jobs in metro Atlanta grew at an average pace of 2.4% a year. If the economy had grown at that same pace the past two years, it would have about 111,000 more jobs than it had before the pandemic.
More ominously, the winter surge in the omicron variant has hurt many businesses that rely on in-person transactions and events, said John Waldmann, chief executive of Homebase, which uses its scheduling software to track hours worked and business closings.
“What we have seen in January is a decline,” he said.
For small companies particularly, the margin between success and failure can be slim, but survivors learn how to adapt, he said. “Over the past two years, it has gotten harder to run a business. But with every wave, businesses get better and better at responding.”
Metro Atlanta jobs
Added, December: 18,600
Average, pre-pandemic December: 1,900
Total jobs, December: 2,882,700
Total jobs, pre-pandemic: 2,867,900
Labor force, December: 3,157,316
Labor force, pre-pandemic: 3,156,234
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Metro Atlanta sectors with the most December job gains
Transportation and Warehousing: 5,000
Retail Trade: 4,400
Administrative and Support Services: 2,800
Wholesale Trade: 1,600
Accommodation and Food Services: 1,300
Non-Durable Goods Manufacturing: 1,200
Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services: 1,200
Health Care and Social Assistance: 1,200
Source: Georgia Department of Labor
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