Job growth has been strong in hospitality. Here, Waffle House was among the companies recruiting workers at a recent job fair sponsored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, 100,000 Opportunities Initiative and the Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Douglas County Solicitors. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Georgia posted strongest August job growth in two decades

State added 20,800 jobs, nearly doubling average of last five Augusts

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include details about tech sector hiring and job trends nationally.

The Georgia economy, which had a weaker-than-average first half to the year, seemed to hit the gas in August, adding 20,800 jobs, the state’s labor department reported Thursday.

The surge – more energetic than the performance of the U.S. overall – was the strongest August in the past two decades. Hiring was nearly double the average gain of the five previous Augusts.

It also came as more Georgians actively began looking for work again — another positive signal for economic prospects after the state’s workforce contracted earlier this year.

With the growth in the labor pool, the unemployment rate remained steady at 3.6%.

So far this year, Georgia has added 50,800 jobs – not as strong as the year before, but better than 2017.

While any month’s report can be misleading, the overall trend shows a continuing if modest-paced expansion with no signs of major damage from the nation’s trade war with China.

range of sectors saw solid expansion, according to the report:

— Professional and business services, which includes many good-paying, white-collar jobs.

— Hospitality, which includes many lower-paying, blue-collar service jobs.

— Government, which includes school employees starting the new academic year.

— Information, including many high-paying, in-demand technology jobs.

— Financial services, which covers a range of work.

One glaring omission from that list was construction, which has been at the vanguard of growth for several years. A haven for good-paying work that does not require a college degree, the sector is up 11,200 jobs from a year ago – growth of more than 6% – but it was not among the gainers in August.

The August data also showed a positive reversal in an important metric: human capital.

People are the fuel for growth. Yet for six months this year, the number of people in Georgia’s workforce has been shrinking – an uncommon occurrence in a growing, healthy economy.

There are always people who are discouraged after an unsuccessful job search or don’t look for other reasons. Once they give up looking, they are not officially included in the labor force and not counted as unemployed.

When more people move to the sidelines, that’s often a sign that jobs are getting scarcer, but that hasn’t seemed to be the issue. In fact, a number of local companies have lately complained that they have job openings, but are having trouble finding the workers that are needed for expansion.

Tech jobs especially are in high demand, said Chris Hopfensperger, executive director of Software.org, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks the industry and encourages its growth through education.

“The biggest worry we have is getting people into these jobs,” he said.

The group’s most recent report found 105,453 software jobs in Georgia, 3.4% of the nation’s total. The tech sector in Georgia has grown at a pace of more than 4% a year – more than twice as fast as the state’s overall job growth.

Georgia ranks 9th for software jobs, he said.

Stephen Wakeling, chief executive of Atlanta-based Phobio, said the tech company can find the top-notch talent it needs, but it cannot dawdle when hiring.

“It is hard to compete for developers when they are on the market,” he said. “If we think there’s a fit, we make a quick offer. There’s no way they won’t have another job offer tomorrow.”

The roughly 85-person company provides software used by wireless companies and cell phones that help consumers trade in their old devices. Phobio expects to add 16 workers – mostly engineers – during the next six months. “We’re hoping to keep hiring at about that pace and to keep up that pace for the next few years,” he said.

In general, news of plentiful job openings tends to draw people back into the labor force, and that seemed to happen in August, said Mark Butler, the state’s labor commissioner.

“August was the type of month I like to see for Georgia,” he said. “It was great to see the labor force growing again.”

The labor force grew 5,478 last month, although it is still down more than 8,000 for the year.

Nationally, the economy added 130,000 jobs in August, slower than had been expected, and Georgia made a disproportionate contribution. The state accounts for 3% of America’s jobs, but it supplied 16% of the new jobs last month.

The U.S. unemployment rate in August was 3.7%, also unchanged from the previous month.

Nationally, the number of jobs is 1.4% higher than a year ago. During that same period, Georgia’s job pool has grown 1.9%.

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