Unemployment drops in Macon, Warner Robins

The drop in Macon’s unemployment rate is small, but experts say it may be a sign that the economy is finally turning around here and across the state.

Thursday, the Georgia Department of Labor released encouraging figures that show unemployment in the metro Macon area dropping three-tenths of a percentage point from 10.9 percent in February to 10.6 percent in March, a difference of about 300 unemployed workers over that time span.

Last month, the metro Macon area had a net gain of 400 jobs, rising to 94,600 jobs, the state reported Thursday.

The unadjusted unemployment rate in metro Warner Robins dropped from 8 percent in February to 7.8 percent in March.

“We see it as a hopeful sign that it could be getting better,” said Department of Labor spokesman Sam Hall, noting that a few “specific areas like Macon” saw modest job growth.

Hall pointed to comments by Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond in a news release last week that “a fledgling recovery may be gaining traction.” The labor commissioner also noted that the rate of new layoffs in the state has slowed “significantly.”

Mercer University economics professor Roger Tutterow said the numbers suggest real growth, not the statistical illusion that sometimes occurs, lending to false hope.

For example, last August, the state labor department reported the unemployment rate in the metro Macon area decreased to 9.9 percent, but it noted that the drop was attributed to “work force shrinkage,” not job growth. While the actual number of the unemployed dropped 420 in August, the area also lost 5,200 payroll jobs.

When times are tough, Tutterow said, people who have been looking for work for a while can get discouraged and then leave the work force, meaning they stop actively seeking work. Sometimes a dip in unemployment is simply the result of “discouraged workers” giving up.

He also noted that those same discouraged workers tend to return to the labor force when the economy improves, which can mask the early stages of a recovery.

Either way, he said the state’s latest numbers are encouraging because the state gained jobs, as did Macon.

“We’ll welcome any good news,” Tutterow said, noting there are other signs of a turnaround on the national level.

But he cautioned that the road to recovery is long.

“It’s going to take a while,” he said. “It’s a question of a matter of years, not months, before we’ll see those jobs return.”

Greg George is a co-founder of Macon State College’s Center for Economic Analysis, which works with area businesses and reports information to the Federal Reserve in Atlanta.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” George said Thursday, his enthusiasm tempered by the fact that February’s unemployment rate was so high.

He’s encouraged by the fact that some states, like Georgia, have begun to show signs of life and that cities such as Macon have added jobs. But he’s quick to point out that Georgia’s unemployment rate is still higher than the national average of 9.7 percent.

Though he remains hopeful, he cautions that the stall in unemployment may simply be a survival tactic.

“Some of my business contacts have indicated they can’t lay off any more employees,” he said. “They’re already at bare bones.”

The Medical Center of Central Georgia, one of the midstate’s largest employers, has seen a slight uptick in the number of people it has hired.

Lori Cassidy, assistant vice president of human resources, wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph: “Our experience at The Medical Center is similar to what was found with the (Department of Labor).” Cassidy did not provide specific job numbers.

If the recovery in Macon is real, Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, said the full impact of the federal stimulus package hasn’t yet been felt.

Blascovich said Macon has been awarded “several million dollars” in federal stimulus money but hasn’t received or distributed much of it still.

“Some of that (job growth) could be attributed to the stimulus package,” he said, noting that the city is in the planning process for other stimulus package programs that he thinks will create jobs.

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.