Labor Day finds the Augusta work environment frustrating but improving

Good signs in Burke, Columbia County numbers

ATLANTA -- Labor Day has traditionally meant more about the end of summer and the start of football games and school for Augusta-area workers rather than a period of reflection on their job prospects. But the lingering effects of the most recent recession have changed everything.
"The Great Recession is reaping a bitter harvest of jobs, hopes, and dreams," wrote Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond in a recent column. "Americans fortunate enough to be gainfully employed are haunted by fear and anxiety, which are the debilitating byproducts of widespread economic uncertainty."
The weekend began with Friday's release of the national unemployment rate, which rose slightly to 9.6 percent. Officials haven't released the state and local figures for August.
What the state Department of Labor has made public is a snapshot of the metro Augusta work environment.
For example, Burke County has the 10th-highest wages of the state's 159 counties. And Columbia County has the eighth-highest family income and fifth-best unemployment rate.
When you include Richmond County, the Georgia side of the metro area has some struggles. The metro average annual wage of $39,700 is below the $45,500 state average and well below the $49,000 national number.
Its July unemployment rate rose slightly to 9.3 percent due to new layoffs in the machinery-manufacturing sector as the whole area lost 1,300 jobs, according to Mark Watson, the assistant director of work-force analysis at the state department. Local government shed 1,000 of them.
Since the beginning of the year, Electrolux's 47 layoffs and FPL Foods' 185 accounted for the biggest single sources of job losses. At the same time, Convergent ERS announced 392 new jobs coming.
"When we look at what our job-posting numbers are, what our recruitment numbers are, they are about 15 percent less than last year," said Julie Goley, the director of the career center at Augusta State University.
Fall is normally when employers begin interviewing May graduates for positions, and so far the health, accounting, finance and information-technology sectors are most active, while future grads looking to teach or work in factories aren't getting much attention.
Among the blue-collar ranks, factories are beginning to stick a toe or two into the water, reports John Culpepper, the owner of Express Employment Professionals in Athens.
Companies hire temporary workers such as those Express supplies because nervous managers have fewer qualms about letting them go in case demand isn't as strong as hoped. The call for temp workers has risen 50 percent over last year, Culpepper said.
"The one thing we have the biggest problem with is getting people off of unemployment because (Congress) extended unemployment (benefits)," he said. "If it's not a permanent position, they say 'I'll just stay in the house.' There are jobs out there. I'm very optimistic about the future."
Starting pay, though, is generally lower. Someone laid off at $16 per hour will have to settle for a new job at $9, Culpepper warned.
Thurmond blames executives' distrust of Washington politicians with their decision to hold on to cash rather than investing it in factories or new hires. But some large employers are spending their cash.
Their numbers aren't up to the pre-recession level of 2006 when they announced 25,000 new jobs through $5.8 billion in capital. Still, for the 12 months ending in June, large companies announced 19,000 new Georgia jobs and an investment of $3.7 billion, less than the peak but still an increase of 11 percent in hiring and a healthy 47 percent boost in capital in one year.
Even better news is that the number on companies considering sites in Georgia has grown 140 percent since 2006, a pipeline of sorts for new jobs that typically takes 18 months to travel from end to end.
"We are in a very strong pipeline," said Heidi Green, the Georgia commissioner of economic development.
Nationally, too, companies are hiring again, just not fast enough to overcome the end of census workers' jobs and other government layoffs.
"We have now added private sector jobs for eight straight months, totaling 763,000 private sector jobs since the beginning of the year," said U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "While we need to pick up the pace of recovery, erase the job losses and get Americans back to work, this encouraging growth shows that we are headed in the right direction."