Metro Atlanta posts strong job growth amid record low unemployment

Metro Atlanta added 26,900 jobs last month, nearly twice as many as in an average pre-pandemic November, and the unemployment rate hit a new all-time low, the state Department of Labor said Thursday.

Hiring was strong across a range of sectors, but particularly in jobs related to holiday purchases, storage and delivery of goods. Leading the way were jobs in warehousing, logistics and retail, as the unemployment rate fell from 2.4% in October to 2.2%.

Only people actively looking for work are counted as unemployed, so sometimes the rate falls when discouraged workers give up the search and leave the workforce. But in November, the labor force grew by 14,469.

The region’s labor force is still 11,000 short of its level in early 2020, but has added 83,505 people since January and that expansion is what’s needed for full recovery, said Mark Butler, the state’s labor commissioner. “We have plenty of jobs and we need more people.”

The metro area’s lowest pre-pandemic unemployment rate was 2.6% in 1999 and 2000, when the tech bubble was most inflated.

In contrast, this boom is powered not by investment, but by consumer spending, and — barring a virus-driven retreat — prospects are good, Butler said. “There is still a lot more to go. I’m like a broken record, but we have a lot of jobs we need to fill.”

To fill those jobs, companies that need workers are scrambling and the competition for employees has spurred offers of better benefits, more flexibility and higher wages.

Starting pay pre-pandemic at the Cargill plant in Newnan was $15 an hour, Butler said. “I drove by a billboard the other day on I-85 that said it’s $19 now. And that’s with no degree. Just walk in.”

Tech skills are also in demand, especially software engineers, said Frank Green, president of ExecuSource, an Atlanta-based executive search company.

“If you are a ‘Dot Net’ developer, you could get three, four, five job offers in a week,” he said.

In the first months of the economic recovery, many people stayed on the sidelines and did not seek work. At the time, some took advantage of government jobless benefits, which were at their most generous. But even as those faded, some people were needed for child care, some decided to live off a partner’s income and some were either disabled by COVID-19 or afraid of catching it.

Recent research indicates the biggest component leaving the workforce might be early retirements, but that choice is not always permanent, according to labor economist Ian Schmutte of the University of Georgia.

“I do think the number of retirements is significant,” he said. “And it is possible that as wages go up and people get used to the way thing are, that some of those people will come back out of retirement.”

As it has been since March 2020, COVID-19 remains cause for uncertainty, most recently in the sudden spread of the omicron variant. Some initial studies suggest omicron infections are milder than earlier versions despite appearing to be more contagious, but health authorities caution much is still not known, and the sharp rise in cases has prompted some business closures.

November data was collected before any impact of omicron.

Since the depths of the pandemic-triggered shutdowns, metro Atlanta has regained 376,600 jobs, and is just 4,900 jobs shy of its level in February 2020.

The region accounts for 67% of the state’s gains since the first months of the pandemic. Last month, Atlanta represented 61% of the jobs, based on data that had not been adjusted for seasonal trends.

Metro Atlanta unemployment rate*

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

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

Highest, during pandemic: 12.6% (April, 2000)

Recent: 2.2% (November, 2021)

Metro Atlanta job growth

November, 2021: 26,900

Average November, 2001 to 2019: 14,200

Since Feb. 2020: -4,900

Since April 2020: 376,600

Most jobs added, November

Transportation and Warehousing: 6,900

Retail: 5,200

Accommodation and Food Services: 4,200

Manufacturing: 2,300

Wholesale Trade: 1,700

Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services: 1,400

Health Care and Social Assistance: 1,000

*Rate includes only those actively seeking a job

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor