This week’s Courier Herald column:
An interesting contrast is developing in the contest for Governor. A battle over Georgia’s economy and related employment statistics are giving each campaign a rare opportunity to showcase substance over style.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed Georgia’s unemployment rate rose to 8.1%, a stark increase from 6.9% just last April. Democrats pounced with the news that Georgia is now the “worst in the Country” with respect to jobs, directly attacking Governor Deal’s longstanding theme that Georgia has moved into the “Best place to do business”.
And yet, there is evidence that Georgia’s economic recovery is squarely on track. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Dan Chapman and Michael Kanell took an in depth look behind the numbers to show dynamics at work that the top line unemployment rate doesn’t reveal.
Payroll numbers demonstrate that Georgia is adding jobs and employing just over 4.1 Million of its citizens – just 38,000 short of the pre-crash peak. Part of the problem, according to the AJC analysis, is that 450,000 more people call Georgia home now than those that did before the recession took hold.
Growth has long been a growth industry for the northern half of the state, but the excess supply houses and commercial buildings created during the last decade has meant that not as many construction jobs were needed to accommodate the almost half million folks now calling Georgia their home. As such, the construction industry itself has contracted, employing only 70% of the people it did in 2007.
Unlike many other states, Georgia has had to somewhat reinvent itself economically. We absorbed 88 failed banks since 2008. That’s more than just the loss of banking jobs and write offs of bad loans. That’s a diminished access to capital formation as one quarter of our financial institutions were absorbed into others or vanished altogether.
Georgia’s leaders have instead worked to utilize inherent advantages to create a climate for jobs we could attract as well as industries that we could maintain. Georgia is now positioned to truly rival Hollywood and New York as a major film and television production center, with multiple studio campuses under active construction throughout the state. The industry currently employs 24,000 Georgians, with many more jobs expected to be added over the next decade.
Training Georgia’s former textile and construction workers remains a challenge for our employment picture. Part of Georgia’s unemployment challenge is matching the needs of employers with the skills of available workers. Governor Deal has proposed adding coursework in film set design, precision manufacturing, computer programming, and engineering assistance to the Hope Grant program to fill some of these skills gaps. The Hope Grant already covers welding, diesel mechanics, and commercial truck driving – areas that have proven difficult to meet employers’ needs for qualified applicants.
Federal payroll surveys show that Georgia has added 88,700 jobs over the past year – 42,600 since April – according to the AJC. And yet, the unemployment survey from the BLS says the number of people working in Georgia has actually dropped 52,784 during that same period. We may have to add the BLS as another organization that doesn’t know how to poll Georgia.
Regardless of the apparently conflicting statistics from different arms of the same federal government, the question put to Georgians is relatively simple: Do they believe the state is on the right track or the wrong track.
The recession of 2008 hit the state at its core. The banking, real estate, and airline industries were decimated. The textile industry, already in decline, showed further consolidation.
Georgia had no choice but to move forward, as many of those jobs are not coming back. In their place are new manufacturing jobs from companies like Kia and Caterpillar. Studios from Tyler Perry, Pinewood, and others will anchor us as an entertainment production center. And Georgia’s high tech corridor north of Atlanta has landed top names for research and development centers such as General Motors.
It is always easy to criticize, as pointing out flaws or results that were less than desired are easy. Laying out a strategic vision, enacting policies to foster the correct environment, and closing the deal with employers to relocate and/or expand as a result are much harder. Both candidates have a little over two months to persuade Georgia voters that they either buy into the vision of the course we have currently set, or move to a “better” track that as of yet is ill defined beyond 30 second sound bites and bumper sticker slogans.