A low unemployment rate means most people who want jobs can eventually find one, but at any moment, many tens of thousands of Georgians are out of work and looking for their next position. Here, job seekers registered at a job fair held Oct. 8 at the Georgia International Convention Center. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Metro Atlanta’s jobless rate in September was lowest since 2000

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional details.

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate in September dropped to 2.9%, the lowest since late 2000, when Bill Clinton was still president.

The area economy also added 1,500 jobs last month, only the second September expansion in more than a decade, according to a report Thursday from the Georgia Department of Labor.

The positive performance stood in contrast to Georgia as a whole. Last week, officials reported a job loss for the state in September.

The decline in Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate, from 3.5% in August, came even as the labor force grew by more than 13,000 last month – a sign that most of those looking for a job were able to land one. The unemployment rate was 3.4% in September 2018.

The region has added 53,100 jobs in the past year – more than 16 times as many as any other metro area in Georgia. Far behind were Augusta, with 3,200 more jobs, and Gainesville, with 3,100.

The low unemployment rate is giving Atlanta-area workers increased leverage with employers.

Some companies are paying a little more, but also offering a range of perks, said Kim Wallace, executive vice president of Hire Dynamics, a Duluth-based staffing company.

It costs money and productivity to have important jobs unfilled, so employers also are dangling more flexible hours or work-at-home arrangements. It is also expensive to keep filling jobs when workers are lured away, so some companies offer bonuses if workers stay on board a certain period of time, she said.

Just a few years back, when the labor market was less tight, employers could require job candidates to have experience and training before giving them close scrutiny. Now, they are a lot more flexible.

“People are looking for the right attitude more than for the skills,” Wallace said. “Because if they’ve got the right attitude, they think, ‘Fine, I’ll train ‘em.’”

Because monthly data are erratic, jobless rates often dip or rise, then reverse course. Georgia posted the strongest August job growth in two decades. The same month, metro Atlanta logged a weaker-than-usual month for hiring.

Still, Atlanta has been on a relatively steady path toward all-time low jobless rates.

Atlanta’s unemployment rate hit that bottom – 2.6% – at the end of the long, technology-fueled expansion that carried through the 1990s until the burst of the tech bubble. A few months later, the economy slipped into a recession, and unemployment rose above 5%.

Growth started again and the jobless rate dropped on the backs of a housing boom, in which Atlanta was one of the nation’s leading construction sites. But when the housing bubble burst, the economy plunged into another recession and unemployment shot to double digits, hitting a high of 10.6% in 2009 and 2010.

September’s strength shrouds weakness in some sectors.

For example, the end of summer typically means a decline in restaurant jobs, as well as other hospitality positions. The sector accounts for 310,000 jobs in metro Atlanta, including 48,610 just in area hotels, according to a recent study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Construction, a sector that has been surging in recent years, seems also to have weakened.

But those losses were overshadowed by growth in staffing companies, logistics and schools.

Atlanta’s economy usually moves in the same direction as the state’s, but growth in those sectors was stronger than in similar positions statewide last month. Georgia overall also lost more finance sector jobs than metro Atlanta.

After the longest expansion on record, the economy in Atlanta has shown no serious signs of fatigue. Even the trade war with China has seemingly done only limited economic damage.

Trouble can come from many directions, of course. The trade war could worsen. Interest rates might rise, chilling the housing market. Big companies could – for a variety of reasons – cut back investments, with the impact rippling through the economy.

For instance, investor activist Elliott Management Corp. has been pushing AT&T to change its business in ways that could cost thousands of jobs, including many in Georgia, according to the Communications Workers of America, which represents many of those workers. AT&T workers in the Southeast recently went on strike to secure a better contract, before returning to work.

Still, metro Atlanta typically adds significant jobs in the last three months of the year, many of them to handle holiday business. Last year, for example, 53% of all jobs were added from October through December.

Atlanta has not lost jobs in October since 2008, when the recession was deepening and job losses were accelerating.

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