The Augusta area ranked third in new job creation in the state last year, behind Atlanta and Savannah, but ahead of cities such as Columbus and Athens.
The Augusta-Aiken metro area had a modest 1.2 percent job growth rate, increasing its employment base from 200,900 in 1999 to 203,300 in 2000, according to recently released statistics from the Georgia Department of Labor.
Atlanta had 2.8 percent job growth, and Savannah had 1.5 percent.
In the past decade, however, Augusta's job base has grown by 8.5 percent, trailing most other Georgia cities. By comparison, Savannah employment grew by 19.5 percent; Columbus' rose by 22.5 percent; Macon's increased 16.8 percent; Athens' grew by 23.3 percent; Albany saw a 17.5 percent rise; and Atlanta's grew by a whopping 43.9 percent.
The Augusta area's anemic growth in the past 10 years is because of downsizing at Savannah River Site and cutbacks in the medical and manufacturing sectors, said Jeff Humphreys, the director of economic forecasting for the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
"(The SRS layoffs) had a direct impact on total employment, but it also eliminated jobs elsewhere in the market," he said.
The nation's medical industry went through some restructuring in the '90s as employers became more cost-conscious about insurance coverage, Mr. Humphreys said. The resulting crackdown on medical care expenditures squeezed profits and employment in hospitals.
"The medical industry is such an important cluster in Augusta," Mr. Humphreys said. "Hospitals found they had to stop hiring or lay off workers to bring budgets under control."
The Augusta area also took a hit from the labor-intensive manufacturing industry, as area apparel operations struggled to compete with cheap foreign labor. Increased automation has also eliminated the industry's dependence on human labor.
Mr. Humphreys said Augusta's future might brighten now that the worst appears to be over.
"Most of Augusta's at-risk manufacturing industry is gone," Mr. Humphreys said. "The medical industry is about to begin a new growth spurt, and I believe SRS will gradually expand."
The Augusta-Aiken area is defined as Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties in Georgia, and Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina.
Most of the growth from 1999 to 2000 came in Richmond County, with 1,176 jobs, followed by Columbia County, with 681 jobs, and Aiken County, with 550 jobs.
The area enjoyed its biggest employment gains in government and the service and trade industries, but suffered modest losses in construction and transportation.
"We've seen some significant losses so far this year, particularly in manufacturing," said Jim West, president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. "But I think our totals will still be positive because of solid growth in the service and retail industries."
Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.