Help wanted: Augusta-area job market still falling short of pre-pandemic levels
The Augusta area’s job numbers are still below what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. More Georgians – 5,068,389 – are employed now than in any other time in the state’s history, the Georgia Department of Labor announced in late March. The average February jobless rate was 3.9% in Richmond County and the 11 other neighboring counties comprising the Central Savannah River Area Regional Commission. But most job sectors in and around Augusta have fewer employees now than they did two years ago.
The federal government’s Atlanta-Richmond County Metropolitan Statistical Area is composed of Richmond, Columbia, Burke, McDuffie and Lincoln counties in Georgia, and Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina. Within it, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that the area has 239,500 nonfarm workers.
Compared to February 2020, over 6,000 fewer people are employed in the area, said Dr. Simon Medcalfe, professor of economics at Augusta University’s Hull College of Business.
“I think locally we’re still struggling, all businesses, to get people back to work,” Medcalfe said. “It’s everything from lawn maintenance to hospitals to school systems. There are vacancies that I know of in all those sectors. A yard service is trying to get people to cut grass. A hospital is trying to get medical care sorted. Schools are trying to educate our kids.”
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Some sectors saw major gains
Just three job sectors in the area are showing more current employees than in 2020, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
More than 29,700 retail employees now work in the Augusta area, a number 11.1% higher than two years ago.
The number of transportation and warehousing employees jumped even higher – 12.5% – likely reflecting the opening of Amazon’s large Columbia County fulfillment facility last fall. Over the seven-county area, more than 8,800 people currently work in that sector.
The number of workers in the Augusta-area manufacturing sector rose slightly, just less than 1%, to about 23,900.
“I think a lot of that is down to just the change in consumer spending patterns we've seen in the past two years,” Medcalfe said. “People are spending more money on goods rather than services. We need people to make goods, we need people to sell goods and we need people to move goods around.”
Leisure and hospitality struggle
Other professions’ worker numbers are below their pre-pandemic levels. There are more than 26,000 employees currently in the Augusta-area leisure and hospitality field, which includes restaurants and hotels. But that figure is still 3.3% below what it was two years ago.
Henry Scheer considers himself lucky. The co-owner of TBonz Steakhouse on Washington Road said he came through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic without losing many employees to illness or quitting.
“There have been ups and downs from time to time with waitresses, but the main staff of our kitchen – which is the backbone of any restaurant – they’ve been real good to us,” he said. “At one point it was ‘Oh no, we’ve got to hire right away,’ and we're always hiring good people. But the majority of our staff stayed with us through thick and through thin, and we really appreciate it.”
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But Robert Holmes, vice president of Augusta Staffing Associates, which helps people and businesses fill jobs, said leisure and hospitality businesses in and around Augusta could be hurting the most when trying to fill out their labor forces. Some employers are “losing half their teams on a normal basis,” he said.
The job crunch is felt even more acutely during Masters Week, when Augusta welcomes visitors from around the world. Businesses striving for top-level customer service still need people to serve the customers.
“That’s what they refer to when they’ve called in recently,” Holmes said. “But this was also before the Masters – hotels, your service-industry-type positions, customer service-level opportunities. Unless they’ve increased their (pay) rates to stay competitive, they’re struggling, too.”
Since delivery drivers have become the new star players in America’s retail economy, demand for transportation employees is still high.
“The whole logistics industry is in need,” Holmes said. “There’s never been a greater demand than now because of just the way the new economy is built, to deliver things to the door and there are all different sizes of logistics companies that get from A to B. They are all in need of drivers and things like that.”
Pay isn't everything
Often, an employer’s promise of a bigger paycheck isn’t the most effective lure for job prospects. More employers seem to be finding what Los Angeles management consulting firm Korn Ferry concluded in survey results it released earlier this year: Money isn’t everything.
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“When you truly get down to it, it’s not going to be the No. 1 priority for a lot of people, especially for the newer generations,” Holmes said. “Matter of fact I just talked to a retailer yesterday and talked her through some options as far as changing her schedules and the way that she does shifts to make it more attractive. They’re having to maneuver them in different ways.”
Holmes has heard that the job market might not be as tight by the end of the year, “but I'm not sure if anybody knows what's next,” he said.
"I do know this,” he added. “The experts will be researching this for years to come.”
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Augusta-area job numbers still short of pre-COVID pandemic levels