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Many workers still laboring to scrape by
Nations job picture remains a shifting image, and the tea leaves arent getting any clearer
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Labor Day 2015 brings the usual combination of shorter days, football games, end-of-summer trips to the lake and ... a day off from work?

For most, yes. For many, it’s another day on the job, particularly those who toil for more than one paycheck. And for others, it’s just another day spent looking for a job, or a better one, if they haven’t given up already.

This year’s labor picture paints the same mix of good and bad news we’ve seen in recent years. Friday, it was learned the nation’s unemployment rate has fallen to a seven-year low of 5.1 percent. Yet the bad news was the 173,000 new jobs added in August came in below expectations.

Georgia’s jobless rate is higher at 6 percent, and in the Gainesville metro area, where it is 5.5 percent after dipping to 5 percent earlier in the year. The labor force here has mostly remained steady as local businesses plan job expansions in the year ahead, particularly in manufacturing and health care. Of note, the newly opened Northeast Georgia Health System hospital campus in Braselton is expected to bring more growth and jobs to that area of the county.

So there are jobs to be had, and most are being filled. But are businesses and workers prospering? Again, it depends on which industry we look at and how it is measured.

In recent years, even as jobs became more plentiful, earnings weren’t rising. Nationwide, average hourly wages for private-sector jobs rose 2.1 percent from July 2014 to 2015. Yet employers still face payroll increases, mostly in the form of higher health care costs to cover their workers, money going into fewer pockets.

In years past, a jobless rate in the 5 percent range historically led to greater pay increases, based on the demand for workers outweighing the supply. That hasn’t happened yet, likely because the economy’s growth has been too slow for most industries to begin adding new positions in considerable numbers.

Friday’s jobs report, however, showed wages finally nosing above the rate of inflation, a positive sign for workers. Combine that with low gasoline costs and consumer buying power may be headed in the right direction. Higher wages in the year’s final quarter during the holiday buying season would be a huge lift for the economy.

In Hall County, the average weekly wage of $867 recorded in the last quarter of 2014 was well below the state average of $1,305. Other area counties in more rural areas are even lower: Banks $535, Dawson $519, Habersham $638, Lumpkin $625 and White $632. Only Forsyth at $919 is in the ballpark with metro Atlanta counties (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Some of the shift in earnings may be attributed to the transient nature of work in the modern age. Employees aren’t taking jobs with the long haul in mind as they did in the past, and that continuous shuffle may be acting to keep wages low. Those who stay in a position for many years likely will earn more over time. And though some individuals may earn higher salaries by switching jobs, many of the positions they leave behind can in turn be filled by lower-wage, entry-level positions.

Younger workers expectations’ have changed from that of their parents. The new generation is less concerned, in many cases, about launching and finishing a career in the same spot. They are more willing to bounce from job to job, seeking not just greater compensation but a workplace and job tasks that suit them.

It’s a bit like pro sports. At one time, ballplayers joined a team and stayed there for their whole careers, unless they were traded. Now, free agency has them seeking bigger paychecks in different uniforms, and team rosters change yearly. American workplaces in many sectors are reflecting this same trend of employee “free agency.

The question remains: Is this good or bad for the workplace? For employers, it can be frustrating to recruit, hire and train workers only to see them flee within a few years, forcing them to start the process over again. Some industries have suffered more than others in trying to find experienced, well-trained professionals.

The role of education is changing in reaction to these trends. Public schools have begun to recognize the need to prepare students for the workforce, not just college, and are steering more of them into vocational education fields that offer solid, good-paying jobs. The boost in enrollment at technical colleges is a reflection that many more young people are willing to learn a lucrative trade instead of running up thousands of dollars of student debt for college degree that isn’t tied to specific career goals. Lanier Tech in Oakwood, for example, is looking to expand in a new campus location in Hall County to meet the anticipated growth in student needs.

In taking the temperature of the local job market each year, we find changes that likely won’t take us back to the good old days when a hard day’s night for a solid paycheck was all anyone sought. Now the rise in part-time work, contract and temporary labor, a transient workforce and a slow-growing economy have complicated what used to be a simple equation.

Will Labor Day in the future still be a time when most American workers take a day off from the job? Or will it become just another Monday of mattress sales in early September? Only time will tell.

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