Weak job market

Aiken native Shreya Acharekar is in the midst of her first job search.


She was among the first wave of people inside the job fair at Aiken Technical College applying for stimulus-created jobs at Savannah River Site. She graduated from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., last year with a degree in biology.

"I can tell the market is a lot harder to get something now than if I'd started back then," Ms. Acharekar said.

She is optimistic about the opportunities offered at the SRS job fair, but is unsure whether there's a job for her because most of them are engineering based, not scientific.

Competition is stiff for the 3,000 jobs -- there already are more than 5,000 applications turned in and thousands more people going to the job fairs who have yet to apply.

Though the jobs are temporary -- ending in September 2011 when the cleanup mission has been accomplished -- they should make a dent in the metro area's unemployment statistics.

The six-county metro area had more than 24,000 unemployed people in May, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. Local numbers for June will be released later this month.

Economists are signaling that there will be a jobless recovery to the recession.

Augusta State University economist Mark Thompson said it might take years to get back the jobs that have been lost.

"The 2001 recession was considered the mildest recession on record. It took four years to recover in terms of the employment picture ... four years before we got back to pre-recession employment levels," Dr. Thompson said. "It will take a long time before we see jobs go back to that pre-2007 employment level."

Dr. Thompson said Augusta has not shed jobs at the same pace as the national economy, so there is not as much to recover from.

"But I wouldn't be surprised to see it take three or four years," he said.

According to the state labor department, there were 10,700 more people without a job in the metro area in May than in November 2007, when the national recession began.

Michael Toma, an economist at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, agrees that a recovery will be slow and not accompanied by rapid employment growth.

The Savannah region has shed about 6,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession.

"The worst of our recession was probably in the first quarter of this year," Dr. Toma said. "Things should begin to stabilize sometime of the third or fourth quarter of this year. In terms of growth and recovery, we won't begin to see measurable gains until early in 2010."

The Augusta-Aiken employment picture has some positive drivers, though, Dr. Thompson said: the SRS stimulus-funded environmental cleanup, the expansion at Fort Gordon and the coming expansion at Plant Vogtle.

The Kellogg's plant in south Augusta is expanding operations this fall, creating 260 more jobs. That expansion represents only $7.5 million of $30 million in bond financing for projects there. Further expansion plans will be announced for 2010 when they've been corporately approved.

Unemployment is a lagging economic indicator, Dr. Thompson said.

"Things will pick up and the rate will jump before it comes down," he explained.

Dr. Thompson said he sees the rate of decline moderating faster than he had thought it would, an indication that the recession in Augusta may be coming to an end in the coming months.

"What I think will happen is we'll stay at the bottom for a longer period than I anticipated. It will be into the fourth quarter of 2009 before we start to see signs of recovery," he said.

It will be in the first few months of 2010 before there are a collection of local economic indicators that signal a recovery.

Dr. Thompson said the recession has been kinder to the Augusta area than others around the state and nation.

Housing has remained steady here. New housing starts and real estate sales are down, but there is not a steep decline.

"That heavy housing contraction put a strain on the banking sector and spending in the local areas. We didn't have that kind of strain, so we're not feeling those secondary effects," he said.

Dr. Toma said it is a good strategy for businesses to position themselves for the recovery that is coming.

"The world economy is not going to be in a slump forever, nor is the U.S. economy," he predicted.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.


MonthUnemployedUnemployment rate
April 21,6608.3
May 24,0749.3

Data include six counties making up the Augusta metro area.

Source: Georgia Department of Labor