Talking to human resources professionals at a conference in Statesboro, Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the most common gripe he hears has changed since the high-unemployment period a few years ago to "Where are all the workers?"
Butler, first elected in 2010, heads the Georgia Department of Labor. He was the last of three keynote speakers for the Workforce Readiness Conference hosted Friday by the Statesboro Area Society for Human Resource Management at the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center on the Georgia Southern University campus.
For many parts of the state, a confusing convergence of trends appeared when labor statistics for August were compared to July, Butler reported.
"This is what happened almost across the state, without fail," he said. "Almost every area has got something similar to what just happened last month. That is, for the first time in ... I don't know ... a year and a half, maybe two, we saw the labor force contract."
Simultaneously, the reports for most regions of Georgia showed fewer people employed in August than in July, but also fewer people unemployed. Claims for unemployment benefits also went down.
What could cause this apparently contradictory situation, Butler asked. Conference attendees offered several guesses. No, people aren't moving away. They are "coming to Georgia in droves," he assured. No, they aren't suddenly retiring. Then someone got it partly right, saying, "Kids went back to college." But not just college students, high school students too, Butler said.
For the first time in his six years as labor commissioner, he saw clear statistical evidence of teenagers and college students leaving jobs at the end of summer break. Unlike adult workers, they don't apply for unemployment benefits.
"We started digging a little deeper, and I got kind of excited about it. ...," Butler said. "In the past you would see this big shift, but the jobs that we would see these kids in over the summer, whether they were high school or college, were manned by who, three or four years ago? It wasn't students. It was adults that couldn't find other jobs."
So August's mix of statistics was good news not only because it showed adults weren't desperate for temporary jobs, but because larger numbers of students again found summer jobs to learn work skills, he suggested.
Meanwhile, job creation remains strong, with more than 100,000 job openings typical statewide, he said. Monday, the department's Employgeorgia.com site gave a count of 116,177 known jobs available.
"It's really been trending like this for the last three to four years," Butler said after the meeting. "We've seen very strong job growth. We have beat most predictions for the job growth for the last three years, and it looks like we're going to be beating most of the projections for this year."
Most labor prognosticators predicted that Georgia would create around 80,000 or 85,000 jobs this year, but he thinks the reality will be "right at 100,000 or more," he said.
So creating jobs is no longer Georgia's challenge so much as finding and developing qualified workers, he said.
"Even though we keep growing jobs, we also can't fill those jobs," Butler told the SHRM conference group. "You talk about all the people moving to Georgia and you go, ‘Where are they?' When they move to Georgia, they've already got a job."
This is also easy to see in statistics, he said.
Butler commented that he is not running for governor, but gubernatorial candidates contact him for information and advice. Now he tells them to emphasize workforce development more than job creation, he said.
"Yes, you know we want to always talk about growing jobs in Georgia, but we've got to really concentrate on growing the workforce for the jobs we have open here," he said after the meeting.
Along with the improved job numbers, the state reports continue to show a large number of long-term unemployed people, Butler acknowledged. Talking to the human resources managers, he suggested a mentoring effort called "Adopt One," that is not yet a formal program.
Butler, a Republican who will be up for re-election in 2018, also sought feedback on the idea of a tax credit for employee transportation in rural areas.
"Maybe several companies could go in together and buy a van, maybe even hire a driver, and if we could tax credit back that cost to them over a period of years, it would basically zero out that investment, but yet the investment is going to be in those individuals helping them get in that job, stay in that job, and then one day they'll be able to buy their own transportation," he said after the meeting.
Another state agency chief, Department of Corrections Commissioner Gregory Dozier, spoke about challenges the department faces as a large-scale employer. He also talked about the state prison system's programs to provide education and job training to offenders.
"You want somebody to break that cycle, and so if we can give them a skill while they're with us that they can come back and apply it do doing useful things in the community, we believe that public safety is enhanced," Dozier said in an interview.
The day's first keynote speaker was Menelik Alleyne, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act services director for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The conference also included four panel discussions, on the re-entry of inmates to the workforce, veterans' employment issues, education and concerns of employers.
Statesboro Area SHRM President Charlene Powell said the conference was intended to be first of an annual series. More than 100 people signed up, but not all were there through the entire seven-hour event.
"We would hope that this conference would be the beginning of a conversation throughout the region on how to work together to pool resources, share ideas and strengthen our region's workforce," said Curtis Woody, District 5 director for SHRM Georgia and also workforce readiness director for the local chapter.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.