Georgia job growth strong, defying the headwinds

Jobless rate is low, at 3.4% but employers have twice as many jobs available as there are people unemployed

Shrugging off high interest rates, persistent inflation and a year of pessimistic predictions, Georgia employers added 17,100 jobs last month, more than four times as many as during an average pre-pandemic September, according to the state Department of Labor.

Growth was especially strong among hospitality jobs, administrative work and health care positions.

“There are still almost two job listings for every unemployed person,” said Sheryl LaPlace, Atlanta-based human resources consultant for Insperity, a national HR firm. “Businesses are still trying to catch up. We are still in hiring mode.”

The unemployment rate, which only counts people actively seeking work, ticked up, from 3.3% to a still-historically low 3.4%, because the workforce grew even faster than hiring.

That kind of increase in the labor force is typically seen as positive, a sign that many people who have been on the sidelines think that jobs are plentiful and start looking for work.

After many months in which employers complained of having trouble filling positions, employers need those workers to keep growing, said Labor Commissioner Bruce Thompson. An influx of job seekers lets the economy navigate “a delicate balance. We find ourselves at a pivotal crossroads.”

A year ago, many, if not most economists, were predicting a recession.

Inflation was high and in an effort to fight it, the Federal Reserve was raising short-term interest rates, adding to borrowing costs for companies and consumers alike. In general, that tends to slow spending, which in tur, means less demand for goods and less hiring.

Inflation is now down, but credit card rates currently average 24.45%, according to LendingTree. That’s the highest they’ve been in more than three decades, while the average rate for a 30-year mortgage last week approached 8%, the highest rate since mid-2000.

And home sales have been chilled, yet other consumer spending has been strong.

But hiring continues, with the most job listings now in health care, retail, office work and professional services — which includes tech work, where 8,600 open positions are advertised on the state site, according to the Department of Labor.

Helping to counter the headwinds are several accelerants.

The recent flow of venture capital into Atlanta has been great for tech hiring, said Shahrukh Zahir, chief executive of Right Fit Advisors, a staffing company that specializes in placing tech workers.

“So, that demand is not going to slow down,” he said.

Companies are looking for expertise in machine learning, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and a programming language like “Ruby on Rails,” he said. Even an engineer with no experience can make at least $75,000 he said. “With eight years or more, you make $180,000 to $200,000.”

Government spending has also picked up some of the slack.

Federal tax breaks and state subsidies have spurred expansion of the electrical vehicle sector and creation of thousands of jobs. And the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has meant hiring in the state, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Government incentives — especially the Inflation Reduction Act — were key to expansion of Qcells’ solar panel factory in Dalton, which has recently added 510 jobs. The company says it plans to employ 1,800 within a year at that plant, while continuing to expand its factory in Cartersville.

Still, expiration of some pandemic programs could be tapping the brakes.

Jobs could be lost because Congress didn’t extend the subsidy for child care centers, which had spread $1.3 billion among the state’s providers, said economist Caroline Fohlin of Emory.

Loss of that money could mean layoffs at some centers, while others could raise tuitions, which threatens working parents, she said. The worst impact would be in low-income areas, she added.

Child care is a linchpin in the lives of many parents, said LaPlace, the Insperity HR consultant. “If parents can’t get child care, that further reduces the number of work-ready people,” she said.

“There will probably be several thousand moms and a few dads who may not be working outside the home. The magnitude remains to be seen.”

Whatever the number, it means fewer blue-collar workers at a moment when they are still in relatively short supply.

The Georgia economy so far this year has added 85,400 jobs, more than twice as many as the average for the first nine months of a pre-pandemic year.

Historically, a sizeable share of the jobs Georgia adds in a year come in the final three months as companies gear up for holiday spending. In 2019, 16.8% of growth came in those months.

And while some experts predict a weaker-than-usual wave of hiring, there are also signs that the American consumer is once again proving resilient — and impatient.

Two-thirds of consumers plan to begin holiday shopping even before “Black Friday,” the traditional, retail-intensive start to the season the day after Thanksgiving, according to a survey by Radial, a Pennsylvania-based ecommerce company.

The company is adding 1,500 seasonal jobs at its Locust Grove distribution center, according to a spokeswoman. At least some of those jobs will be converted to round-the-calendar positions, she said.

Georgia jobs in September

Change, best pre-pandemic: 22,400 (1997)

Change, worst pre-pandemic: -16,000 (2009)

Average change, pre-pandemic: 3,500

Recent: 17,100 (2023)

Average change, first nine months of year: 35,500

Recent change, first nine months of year: 85,400 (2023)

Unemployment, lowest, pre-pandemic: 3.5% (2000)

Unemployment, highest, pre-pandemic: 10.8% (2009)

Unemployment, average, pre-pandemic: 5.9

Unemployment, recent: 3.4% (2023)

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor