The big hurt: Georgia unemployment hits historic heights 

Late last fall, Sam Warren lost a client who’d fallen on hard times. That client was the state of Georgia.

The 52-year-old consultant and Powder Springs resident, who made his living writing operational manuals for corporations and government agencies, learned the state was instituting a “hard freeze” on outside contracts. Warren, who says never in his life has he left one job without another firmly in place, started making calls to drum up more business. Then he made some more calls.

Now, friends who told Warren in November that they’d try to help him secure work are looking for work themselves.

“It’s dry,” he says. “Dry and dead.”

Last week, Warren was among the estimated 19,000 people who packed into the Georgia World Congress Center to compete for what’s beginning to seem like an impossible find: a job.

Organized by the Georgia Department of Labor, last week’s job fair was considered the largest in the state’s history. More than 100 hiring companies and resource providers set up booths in what agency officials said was an effort to help people find help — and a little hope.

While current economic woes haven’t reached Great Depression scope — at that financial crisis’ peak, one out of four working-age Americans was unemployed — today’s numbers aren’t exactly comforting.

Right now, more than 412,770 Georgians are looking for work. Last month alone, more than 86,000 Georgians filed for unemployment benefits for the first time in their lives, double the number from the previous year. The state’s unemployment rate has risen to 8.6 percent, half a percent higher than the national average. Nearly every job sector has been affected.

In a hospitality suite overlooking the job fair, Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond leans against a floor-to-ceiling window, monitoring the event below.

The commissioner doesn’t mince words about the economic climate. He’s refreshingly honest about the hardship Georgia faces, evident in his recent remarks to reporters that the state is looking at a “Darwinian job market.”

Thurmond says the country is witnessing the “death of the 20th-century economy” and “the birth of the 21st-century economy” — an economy that he says the bulk of the nation’s and Georgia’s work force is unprepared to join.

“These are not job losses in terms of them being temporary,” he says. “These are permanent job losses. Many of the skill sets many of American workers utilized to find jobs and maintain employment have become obsolete. It’s critical we re-educate and retrain this work force and prepare it for the opportunity that will be created in the future.”

On the floor below, job seekers — young and old, men and women, even this reporter’s high school and college classmates — shuffle from booth to booth either looking for work or talking to representatives from local colleges and job associations. Resumes in hand and dressed in executive best, they stand in line to shake hands with representatives, many of whom, job seekers say with disappointment, directed them to the company's website to apply. An electric violinist plays easy-listening music you’d most likely hear while on hold with a temp agency.

The Internal Revenue Service needs auditors to make sure people pay their taxes. Local governments are hiring correctional guards to keep prisoners in line. Businesses that restore foreclosed homes seek more workers to prepare the houses for banks or the next owner.

Telecommunications company eager to bolster wireless and high-speed Internet coverage attract lines of people that snake throughout the room.

Cynthia Edwards, director of career services at DeKalb Technical College, says the school has seen increased interest from many people — particularly older adults — who have been recently laid off.

“The average student age at a two-year college is between 28 and 31,” she says, as she walks toward the convention center. “Now we’re seeing even more people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. People who’ve been downsized. Some of them are looking for a job for the first time in 20 years.”

Rajeev Dhawan, director of Georgia State University’s Economic Forecasting Center, doesn’t foresee things improving anytime soon.

In 2009, the respected economist predicts 92,200 metro Atlantans will be handed pink slips. By July 2010, he says, 10,200 more jobs will have vanished. A “mild recovery” will happen in the second half of next year and the economy will begin to strengthen and grow jobs in 2011, according to Dhawan. Unemployment rates, he predicts, will hit the double digits.

Until some sense of stability returns, Thurmond is in the difficult spot of trying to help people find work or learn a set of skills that will be valued once the economy recovers. He remains optimistic.

Unemployment benefits under President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan have added an extra $25 to recipients’ weekly checks. And the plan is estimated to create as many as 106,000 jobs in the state.

“I’m convinced that the economy will come back,” he says as he prepares to return to the convention center floor to check on his staff. “And what this means” — he gestures toward the job fair — “is that people haven’t given up hope. People are still encouraged. People still believe. And that’s important. Some will find jobs. Others will find opportunities for training and education. But the main thing we’re trying to do is to keep this work force encouraged.”

As crews start to break down the job fair, Warren, the consultant from Powder Springs, prepares to squeeze in a few last interviews with those who hadn’t packed up.

“I’m living one day at a time,” he says. “We’ll persevere. It’s people wanting to work that solves problems like this.”

Read an extended interview with Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

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