Karen Spellman’s realization came this year, after her job as a marketing and production manager for a small hotel chain was eliminated.
The kinds of jobs she’d be a good fit for, she said, mostly aren’t there to be had. And when they are, she’s among a mob of applicants straining to catch the attention of a potential employer. The 49-year-old Forsyth woman has applied for about 100 jobs. She’s landed two interviews.
Four Labor Days have come and gone since the official end of the recession. And, while metro Atlanta has been slowly adding jobs, the recovery has been uneven. At one end of the spectrum, there’s hiring for lower-wage jobs in retail, restaurants, hotels and warehouses; at the other, well-paid positions for those with skills and experience in engineering, information tech and finance.
It’s not just that the job market is weak; it seems to have a missing middle.
“We have seen a return of the higher end of the pay scale and the lower end,” said Jim Link, manager director at Randstad U.S. “Those things that are relatively in the middle are still lagging behind.”
Definitions differ, but, according to the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center, any sector averaging salaries more than $50,000 is deemed high end. A sector that typically pays below $27,000 is defined as low-end.
Spellman is doing what she can to stay afloat. “I’m selling stuff on eBay just to make ends meet,” she said. “It’s a scary situation.”
The American middle class has long been fueled by decent-paying jobs – both blue- and white- collar. Some were private sector – supervisors in manufacturing or other businesses, office workers in a not-for-profit company. Some were government service – police, firefighters and teachers.
Economists have debated the reasons behind the “hollowing out” of the market, with some arguing that globalization is the villain or that technology has eliminated many jobs. Economist Josh Lehner, at the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, says growth has been weakest where work can be done by computer or machine.
Others say the surge in lower-wage jobs is just the result of slow growth overall. Previous recoveries also tended to start with disproportionate hiring of low-wage workers. Then, as the economy picked up steam, so did hiring across the board.
So far, hiring in metro Atlanta has followed the first part of the template.
There was a time when seemingly anyone who wanted to teach could find work
That time is past, said Jovonna Rodriguez, 27, Decatur, who was trained as a social studies and math teacher for the fourth through eighth grade. She cannot find a job, although she has a bachelor’s degree from Emory and a master’s from Mercer. “But there’s nothing like doing what you like and what you went to school for.”
Daryl Jekir, 27, of Dunwoody, went to Georgia Southern and has a double major in International Studies and French.
He has sold suits and shoes in a department store, done database work for a large corporation and volunteered at the Salvation Army. He’s been job-hunting for about nine months while working as an intern at Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta, a non-profit organization committed to the study of French language. “It is basically now a full-time job that I don’t get paid (much) for.”
His fingers are crossed: He’s has had two interviews with a large local company for a job as a client manager that would pay at least $45,000.
Jenny Hamilton, 50, was a campus police officer until she left her job in late winter after a dispute with her boss. “I was making a pretty good living, making almost $40,000 a year.”
Since then, she has applied to be a security guard, a customer service representative, a support analyst for police and a “loss prevention” position with two large department stores. As she searches, she collects unemployment benefits of about $300 a week – and the federal sequester has trimmed those checks by $35 a week.
She gets no response to most of her applications, she said. “I put all these applications online and it is like they get swallowed up. I don’t know what the secret is.”
From his parents’ home in Panama City, John Grady Jones, 22, has been looking for work as a business analyst. He has the Georgia Tech imprimatur, but some potential employers say he doesn’t have enough experience. Most don’t answer at all.
“It has been slow so far, but hopefully better things will come.”
The middle is just an awkward place to be, said Barry Bynum, 51, of Atlanta.
The former business owner was managing a doctor’s practice before the physician was injured in a car accident and had to stop working. “Now, I’m in a spot where I am overqualified for menial work but not quite qualified to be considered for the kind of work I did for two years.”
He has been searching for a little more than a year.
In contrast, it took Matt Olson, 26, of Sandy Springs, less than six weeks to move from one good position to another. He is now director of client development at Alpharetta-based Edge Solutions, which offers high-tech consulting. Olson knew the company founders, which helped, he said.
“There were other places that I talked to,” he said. “There are a lot of great places to work in technology. It was all networking and referrals.”
Edge is small, but growing fast.
“In this industry, I think there is negative unemployment – there are more people working two jobs than people out of work,” Olson said.
Most jobseekers don’t have the right skills for the industries that are growing. And even the tech-related companies that are growing are comparatively small.
For instance, FactoryMation in Canton is averaging 15-20 percent-a-year growth and pays about $50,000 to entry-level marketing employees, but it has only 30 employees right now, said Russ Sanders, president. The firm sells electrical equipment to manufacturers.
Some of the blame for the missing middle rests on the housing crash. That collapse destroyed many decent paying construction jobs, but was also painful for architects, designers, decorators, real estate lawyers and accountants.
Atlanta has lately seen a boomlet in building and an encouraging rise in home values as well as hiring. But it’s still not the kind of engine that powered the economy before the bubble’s burst.
Some economists say that growth in the middle will come when growth overall picks up. It can’t come too soon for Carla Darby, 44, of Snellville.
She had a business remodeling homes, a company that went under after the housing market crashed. She got a part time job. It didn’t pay enough to meet her bills. She lost her home. She lived in a car. Now she is searching for any work that will bring in a paycheck.
“I’m pounding the pavement. I’m going on interviews. And I keep looking – what else are you going to do?”
Average annual wage
Growth since 2009
$75,300 11.6 percent
$43,200 -9.3 percent
Leisure and Hospitality
$21,200 20.3 percent
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center
National job growth
Average annual wage
Source: Oregon Office of Economic Analysis