Despite downbeat talk, Georgia jobs surge

Belkys Steigerwald (R) with Master ConcessionAir talks with a potential new employee during the ATL Airport Career Fair earlier this week. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Belkys Steigerwald (R) with Master ConcessionAir talks with a potential new employee during the ATL Airport Career Fair earlier this week. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

State unemployment rate hits all-time low of 3% in May though other parts of economy look shaky.

Georgia’s surging economy churned out 18,100 jobs last month as the unemployment rate fell to another all-time low, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

The continued growth reflects an unusual, if not unprecedented economic contradiction. The stock market is plunging, interest rates are rising, inflation is sky high and talk of recession starkly contrast with what seems a healthy and expanding economy.

But expand it has: the state has added 244,100 jobs during the past 12 months, the DOL said.

Hiring has not been even, with some sectors like healthcare still scrambling for workers, but growth has been broad-based, the department said.

Some of it — like hiring in restaurants and warehouses — represents immediate consumer demand. But some lays a foundation for potential growth in industries that are barely getting started. Several factories are being constructed to build electric vehicles or batteries to power them.

And on Friday, Aurubis AG breaks ground on a $350 million plant in Augusta, a factory that will employ at least 120 people recycling discarded circuit boards, copper cable, and other materials that comprise 6 million tons of metal waste produced each year in America.

“It’s the first plant of its kind and size in the United States,” said Roland Harings, chief executive of the 150-year-old, German-based company. “And it has the possibility of expanding in size, but also in capabilities.”

The jobless rate last month edged down to 3.0% from 3.1% in April, well below what economists have historically considered full employment. Moreover, the falling rate came as the labor force grew by more than 14,000, which means jobseekers were being snapped up even faster.

Mark Butler, the state’s commissioner of labor, said the total number of unemployed — workers without a job who are searching for one — is at its lowest level since the spring of 2001. And at that moment early in the millennium, the tech bubble had burst, layoffs were rampant and the economy had just tipped into recession.

Now, job openings are many and it is job candidates that are in short supply, Butler said.

”Unless those who have chosen not to work decide they want to re-enter the workforce or more people move into the state, additional workers will be scarce,” he said.

It’s not a new theme: For much of the economic rebound that began in mid-2020, employers have complained of trouble finding workers. For a time, it appeared that many people were keeping to the sidelines, whether caring for family, fearing the virus, relying on spouses, comfortable with government benefits or taking early retirement.

But the labor force has been growing steadily. Georgia now has about 94,000 more people in the workforce than when the pandemic began. It’s just that job growth has far outpaced that expansion.

More than 227,000 job descriptions are listed on the state’s job site, many of them representing more than one open position, Butler said.

Three of the four employers with more than 1,000 job postings are in healthcare.

“It’s severe,” said Matt Caseman, chief executive of the Georgia Nurses Association, which lobbies for the state’s nurses. “Some hospitals have hundreds of vacancies.”

The state has about 141,000 nurses, but there are openings for up to 80,000 more, he said.

One sign of the imbalance between employers and workers is the willingness of employees to quit, something people are loathe to do when jobs are hard to find. More than 40% of workers are planning to look for a new job in the next six months, most of them looking for better pay, according to a survey by staffing company Robert Half.

To attract those footloose workers, employers are far more likely to offer remote work now than before the pandemic, according to a report Thursday from Indeed, an employment and research site.

That kind of strong demand for workers is not typically a sign of impending recession. Yet many recessions have begun after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates so high they choked off borrowing and spending. The Fed is currently on an aggressive, rate-raising campaign aimed at taming inflation.

The goal is worthy, said Mike Dawkins, Atlanta market president at BNY Mellon Wealth Management, whose clients have millions of dollars in assets that are often used to fund small businesses and new ventures.

“If inflation stays high, that’s a long-term concern,” he said.

But a bumpy ride can end in a smooth landing, and at least right now, money is still flowing, he said. “The long-term outlook is not necessarily based on one or two quarters where there’s a lot of volatility. I think Georgia in general has been weathering all those concerns.”


Georgia unemployment rate

Unemployment rate, May 2022: 3.0%

Average unemployment rate, 1976-2022: 5.9%

Highest rate, pre-pandemic: 10.9% (Nov. ,2009)

Lowest rate, pre-pandemic: 3.4% (Dec., 2000)

Georgia job growth

Avg. month, past year: 20,350

Avg. May, pre-pandemic: 5,100 (2000-2019)

Recent: 18,100 (May, 2022)

Unemployed*, Georgia

May, 2018: 206,650

May, 2019: 185,501

May, 2020: 484,506

May, 2021: 213,909

May, 2022: 157,542

*Without a job and looking for work

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor