City, county leaders see the downside of improving economy, growing workforce

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING? With surging employment, Bartow struggles with job vacancies

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According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the state last month posted its lowest unemployment rate since July 2001 — 3.9 percent. The local job market fared even better, with GDOL reporting Bartow's unemployment rate at 3.8 percent in July.

That same month, GDOL announced Georgia added more than 5,000 new jobs and 13,000 more people to the state's employment rolls. With an estimated 5.2 million people in the labor force in July, Georgia is now home to an unprecedented volume of workers — and the local community is hitting all-time high numbers as well.

"The workforce size has never been as large as it is right now, based on the research that we have been able to get our hands on," said Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Melinda Lemmon. "It's just over 51,000 people in Bartow's workforce alone, so that's been a really great trend for our employers to consider." 

Per her organization's numbers, Lemmon said about 49,000 people were employed in Bartow County as of June 2018, along with an additional 2,000 people who were unemployed but actively seeking work. Meanwhile, the total number employed in what she describes as the Bartow "labor draw area" (which also includes Cobb, Cherokee, Floyd, Gordon, Paulding, Pickens and Polk counties) increased to 780,845.

With unemployment seemingly locked at the 3 percent to 4 percent range locally, Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini said it's certainly an "employee's market" right now.

"My personal observation is that anybody that's really wanting to find good work should be able to do it," he said. "I think some of our local employers, as a result, are having to raise wages to make sure they're continuing to recruit and retain the best possible workforce they can for their business."

While Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor said he'll never complain about wage growth and full employment in the community, he nonetheless acknowledges that the uptick in employment isn't without at least one downside: with so many people gainfully employed, now some businesses in Bartow are finding themselves unable to fill job openings.

"It causes some problems for some of the employers, especially our larger employers that are looking for skilled workers," he said. "Truck driving, all across the board, in Bartow County and northwest Georgia, seems to be a problem also for most manufacturers that I hear."

And Taylor said that holds true for the county government as well. 

"We're looking for truck drivers and heavy equipment operators at our landfill," he said. "Those are two of the areas where we're having problems now finding employees .... but from our public works to our water department, just all across, we just need laborers."

The county, he said, is having an especially difficult time filling positions in public  safety.

"The Sheriff's Office has always had openings in my entire six years since I've been commissioner," he said. "Right now, he's back to 22 or 23 openings again. We had got it down to about 10, now he's back up into the 20s, so he's having some problems. And the other public safety areas, like the fire department, we're doing a better job of filling those positions but we're starting to feel a little bit of a pinch there, too."

While Santini said he couldn't specify any particular areas where the city government was short-staffed, he did say City of Cartersville positions were "open across the board."

"Between electric, gas and water — in addition to police and fire — there's always talent that's needed and we're constantly trying to make sure that we hold on to the talented folks that we've got and we try to replace those folks with people that are ready to step in and provide those services," he said. 

Still, in a booming market even the allure of generous 401Ks and health care plans may not be enough for the municipality to recruit and retain top talent. 

"A lot of times, the private sector job rate will be a little bit higher than the public sector. The difference is made up, usually, through stronger benefits and retirement packages," Santini said. "But as the economy's gotten better, there's an opportunity for employees to move from the public sector to the private sector."

But even there Lemmon said some of Bartow's top employers are having difficulties filling positions. 

"I think you're probably going to hear each sector of the community say they would fit into that category," she said. "By the numbers, service and retail are always going to pop up on the list. In our world of industrial and production, we hear that often, that there are certain types of occupations they have a hard time filling." 

When it comes to more "production-type jobs," Lemmon said local businesses are hurting for experienced engineers and industrial maintenance specialists and operators. 

"There are a lot of high-demand careers that the state has actually incentivized through the High Demand Career Initiative," she said. "So folks who want to find employment in about 16 different sectors, there is an incentive for them to go obtain the right kind of training for that and find gainful employment in some categories employers really need filled."

Considering their enormous impact on job creation, Lemmon said local governments would be wise to do what they can to help out some of Bartow's largest businesses with their workforce needs. 

"This community and the leadership has always put an emphasis on trying to retain existing industry, and a majority of our growth — I'd say well over 90 percent of the job growth in this community — comes from existing industries and existing employers," she said. "So to take care of them is very important."

With more people moving into Bartow, Lemmon said she expects the economic equation to get even more complex. Still, even with so many vacancies in the local market, she nonetheless believes the community will continue to add jobs — and continue to see its unemployment figures decline — for the foreseeable future. 

"It certainly comes with challenges for these guys as the population keeps growing," she said. "But I think we've got all the right ingredients for continued job growth here, and for those who want to find employment, if they're not ready in terms of skills? There's even lots of opportunities available to them as well."