The Augusta-Aiken area lost 1,600 jobs last year, about 400 more than it lost during the previous year.
Although the figures released Thursday by the Georgia Department of Labor were not positive news, economic forecasters say the city and the state are poised to rebound this year from the struggling economy.
"We're definitely turning the corner," said Jeff Humphreys, the director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. "This is the beginning of some good news."
The Georgia Department of Labor, which released the 12-month job figures Thursday, said employment loss in the five-county area amounted to 0.8 percent - from 195,700 in January 2002 to 194,100 in January 2003.
The Selig Center's latest economic forecast predicts Augusta will finish 2003 with 1 percent job growth.
"Employers will start hiring again because they need too. We've had five quarters of growth without an employment gain," Dr. Humphreys said. "The only thing that could derail the economy is war with Iraq."
Augusta's job loss was the second worst in the state, behind Columbus. Atlanta's 0.7 percent decrease in jobs was only slightly better than Augusta. Savannah posted the highest job gain in the state.
Most of the jobs lost in Augusta during the period were in the "goods producing" sector - including most manufacturing, mining and construction - which saw employment decline by 1,100.
The rest of Augusta's job loss was split among service industries such as retail, information technology and transportation. Government employment growth was flat.
Last year was marked by see-saw economic activity, said Beverly Johnson, the director of the Labor Department's Augusta Career Center.
"We had the BellSouth call center open with 120 jobs, but at the same time we had Qwikset in Burke County close," she said. "We get good news on one hand and bad news on the other."
Ms. Johnson and Charlie Haneman, the director of the South Carolina Employment Security Commission's office in Aiken, both said they have been busy retraining displaced workers for other careers.
"It's not uncommon nowadays for someone to change careers five or six times in a lifetime," Mr. Haneman said.
One of the few bright spots was the health care industry, which grew 3.3 percent. Dr. Humphreys wasn't surprised.
"Health care is a necessity during good times and bad times," he said.
Georgia lost 13,100 jobs last year; that's down significantly from the year before, when the state lost 93,700 jobs.
The state Labor Department also reported that Georgia's unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in January, down from 4.6 percent in December. In January 2002, the jobless rate was 4.4 percent. January unemployment figures for Augusta have not yet been calculated.
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