Even when the official unemployment rate was falling, Christine Phillips knew the job market was not healthy.
Laid off last August after seven years at Home Depot, most recently in customer service, Phillips started searching for office jobs, applying for positions online and signing on with local staffing companies.
“My resume doesn’t seem to get any consideration,” said Phillips, 51. The Riverdale woman has turned up only short-term, part-time employment.
From last summer’s high of 9.3 percent, the metro Atlanta jobless rate slipped to 7.6 percent in April. But now, the jobless rate is rising again: to 8.2 percent in May; then to 8.9 percent in June, state officials announced Thursday.
In some ways, it’s an annual story. School workers are laid off for the summer, while new graduates emerge from high schools and colleges. But there’s also a larger trend: weak growth in the private sector and rising layoffs in the public sector.
The private sector added 7,800 jobs in June, but government shed 3,500 positions.
Some still find reason for optimism. Dan Campbell, chief executive of Hire Dynamics, a Duluth-based staffing firm, said demand for workers differs from sector to sector. “Clearly, we have seen that things have been improving, but I’d still say that it is pretty choppy. I am seeing a little more optimism than a year ago, a little more confidence.”
But why, four years after the official end of a bitter recession, is it still just a little?
Businesses have become more efficient, suggested Maria Goldsholl, chief operating officer of Mom Corps, a Marietta staffing agency. Companies use more contract labor and other temp workers because it lets them quickly match resources to demand. “From the company’s perspective, doing more with less is the mantra now.”
Sluggish hiring locally is also linked to economies in other parts of the world, said Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University.
The “bellwethers” of the Atlanta economy – companies like Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola – have been burdened with weakening economies in Asia and continued recession in Europe.
“That means that the economy can’t accelerate,” he said.
Meanwhile, domestic growth is modest, he said. “Just look at Wal-Mart – up only 1 percent for the first quarter. That tells you how people are spending.”
One reason for that is a weak labor market in which employers don’t have to pay more to get the employees they want.
Derrick Jackson, who turns 36 today, moved to town last November. At first, he looked for work in logistics or quality control – the kind of work he had done in Boston.
“It was pretty tough, I’ll tell you,” he said.
Jackson, who lives in Lawrenceville, is an Army veteran. “I always hear that it helps, but it really didn’t.”
He is now a trucker.
The jobless rate is probably the most-cited economic measure, and Atlanta’s rate remains at recession-era levels. Yet the statistic may be making the picture look rosier than it truly is.
Because the official number for unemployment masks the number of people who get discouraged and drop out of the market, economists say one measure of the job market is the proportion of people working.
Before the economy slipped into recession, there were 62.9 people working for every 100 of working age. Now, it’s 58.7. If there were still the same proportion of people employed in metro Atlanta as in 2007, that would mean more than 100,000 more people working.
When people flee the job market – heading for school, training, the military, retirement or staying home with the children – that tends to lower the unemployment rate.
So when Thomas Skinner was a stay-at-home father for five years, focused on a daughter’s health, he wasn’t counted among the jobless.
Skinner, 42, of Cumming, went back into the job market in 2011 and spent several months looking before being recruited by a staffing agency and placed at Wells Fargo as a financial analyst.
Flora Lowe-Rockett, 68, of Acworth, retired in 2003. In 2009, she returned to school – and she’s poised now to graduate from Kennesaw State. In August, she starts a new job.
Many people pulled out of the workforce in the depth of recession. Some were just discouraged, others figured to improve their marketability while jobs were scare anyhow – and were betting to return when hiring was stronger than the flow of new job seekers.
Some are hoping school will dramatically improve their chances in the job market.
Amber Blackman, 21, of Acworth, is a business management major at Kennesaw State. She has a job with Screen Gems Studios and plans post-graduation to apply for production jobs in television and movies.
“For me, it won’t be hard at all to find the job I want,” she said.
Bryan Bradley isn’t looking for a job right now, but he’s hoping the jobless rate starts to looks a lot better in the next several years. He’s also aiming to improve the odds: He went back to school a year and a half ago.
He is taking some required courses at Georgia State and plans a shift to Georgia Tech. “I wanted to be an engineer,” said Bradley, 33, of Dunwoody. “I think that, as far as engineering, that the job market will be very good.”
Metro Atlanta unemployment rate
Jobless rates generally rise from May to June because of school layoffs for the summer and new graduates searching for work.
Year … May unemployment … June unemployment
2013 … 8.2 percent … 8.9 percent
2012 … 8.7 percent … 9.3 percent
2011 … 9.6 percent … 10.3 percent
2010 … 9.7 percent … 10.2 percent
2009 … 9.4 percent … 10.5 percent
2008 … 5.7 percent … 6.2 percent
2007 … 4.2 percent … 4.7 percent
Data not seasonally adjusted
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics