A decade ago, the Labor Day forecast for the local economy wasn’t nearly as sunny as the weather.
It was a bleak few years during the Great Recession. Our editorials on the first Sunday in September over the years told the story with headlines such as “Laboring to find work” and “Many workers still laboring to scrape by.” The housing bubble bust torpedoed construction plans, leaving subdivisions as vacant fields of foundations and weeds. Jobs faded and unemployment claims rose. Consumers held onto cash, putting many businesses on the brink, and driving many under. Tax revenues fell and governments had to cut services and jobs dramatically to make ends meet.
Those dreary years now seem like eons ago. Today, unemployment is at record lows, housing construction is again booming, consumers are spending, governments are flush with new revenue and industries are expanding into North Georgia. In a world still uncertain in so many ways, the economy isn’t the least of everyone’s troubles, but it’s also not at the top of the list.
Even then, however, there still are a few dark clouds with the silver linings. Call it the good news/bad news economy, and which side of it you see depends on where you stand.
On employment: Hall County gained 200 jobs in June and 4,000 this year to an all-time high total of 93,700, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. The county’s jobless rate of 3.4 percent remains the lowest in Georgia. Now there are more jobs available than people to fill them. An annual job fair last March at the Gainesville Civic Center attracted 750 job seekers, fewer than the 900 from the year before, beckoned by wall-to-wall employers seeking help.
Nationally, the unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent several months in a row, a bull stock market is roaring to record investments and the nation’s economy grew 4.2 percent in July. Consumer spending has risen six straight months.
Yet many who have college degrees are still underemployed and struggling to find work in their chosen fields of study. Though most are employed, a lot them are working multiple jobs for low wages and tips to get by and pay off their student loans. Those with jobs find their pay isn’t rising to cover the cost of living. Inflation rose 2.3 percent in July, the highest increase in six years. That takes a toll in real earnings, which are down 0.2 percent from last year. Thus people are spending more but not making more, which increases personal debt. And through it all, health insurance costs continue to take a huge bite out of everyone’s take-home pay.
On housing: The building boom is back. So far this year, nearly 3,000 homes, apartments, condominiums and townhomes have been approved or are under construction in Hall in at least 10 different projects. Just eight years earlier, a single building permit was issued in Gainesville. Construction jobs are “coming back with a vengeance,” said Mike Roberson, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of North Georgia.
On job expansion: Companies still flock to our state and area. Georgia ranks seventh in the nation as the top state to do business, according to a CNBC study. Its economy ranks only behind Texas’ as the country’s best, third in infrastructure and fourth in workplace development. The state’s job growth is expected to continue, according to the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, with 78,400 jobs expected to be added in 2018.
Last week, Starbucks announced it would open a new $16 million regional office in Atlanta bringing 500 new jobs. The week before, German manufacturer Selit North America announced a new plant in Banks County bringing 100 jobs. But not all the news is good; that job gain is offset by the loss of 100 jobs from the closing of Mayfield Dairy in Braselton.
Job growth fields today are less about making things and more in high tech, service- and health-related fields, the latter key to much of Hall County’s employment surge. Other skilled trades are growing, fed by training at technical colleges like Lanier Tech, good jobs that don’t tend to saddle graduates with massive college loan debt.
On policy: Whatever policies the Trump administration and leaders in Congress, state legislature and local governments have put into place have fostered an atmosphere of growth. How much credit is deserved — politicians often get too much praise or blame — is subjective, but it’s hard to argue with the bottom line. In truth, a surging economy is fueled more by the ingenuity and enterprise of America’s business leaders, entrepreneurs and workers than those in elected office.
But concerns persist over the president’s trade war tariffs that have created short-term pain in many industries. Time will tell whether they have any positive long-term effect in bringing back manufacturing jobs to the U.S. In fulfilling a key campaign promise, however, the president may be trying to recreate a Norman Rockwell-type tableau that no longer applies.
In reality, the biggest cause for job loss in many manufacturing sectors isn’t overseas outsourcing but automation. Even those operations still running strong in the U.S. use only a fraction of the workers once needed due to robotics and other high-tech upgrades. The days of steel and auto plants employing multiple shifts of workers for good pay aren’t likely to return no matter what trade policies are enacted.
The best answer is job retraining to steer those left out into occupations with brighter outlooks. But training is expensive and federal government efforts like Job Corps haven’t lived up to expectations.
So it's clearly a mixed bag. Business owners, developers and investors are doing quite well. So are those entering lucrative, growing fields with the right skills. But not so for those stuck in fading industries or struggling to pay off their expensive college degrees. This economy rides on parallel courses, boom on one side, bust on the other. Raising all boats with the tide remains an elusive challenge.
That said, we can declare the glass more than half full, knowing that even while many disparities persist, at least everyone’s boats haven’t run aground as they did a decade ago.
For that we can be thankful, while remaining hopeful future Labor Days will bring shared prosperity for the many, not just the few.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to email@example.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.