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Labor commissioner shares good, bad news

Special to SEGAZINE

In recent years, there’s been good news and bad news about Georgia’s job market.

#State Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler shared a bit of both when he spoke at the Jackson-Butts County Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon on Tuesday, Aug. 6, starting with the bad news.

#When Butler took office in 2011, Georgia’s adjusted unemployment rate was 10.2 percent and the state owed hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal government for money borrowed to pay unemployment benefits when the recession hit.

#“Things looked somewhat bleak, but a lot has changed” in the last two years, Butler said to Rotary members and others gathered in the Butts County Parks and Recreation Department Community Center during the luncheon.

#Before the Great Recession, the construction industry was a “big driver in Georgia’s economy,” Butler said. At that time, Georgia was among the fastest-growing states in the region.

#The construction bubble burst at the “worst possible time” and the “rug got pulled out from under us” in terms of economic impact, he said. In 2009, Georgia lost 85,000 jobs within a 12-month period in the construction industry alone, he added.

#Georgia is starting to show signs of growth earlier than expected following the recession, he said.

#For example, in the past two years, construction has begun to rebound a bit after suffering years of job losses, Butler said. The job sector that has suffered the most losses during that time has been government, he said.

#“Government was a loss leader by a long shot. It beat every sector,” he said, later noting that even the Department of Labor shed a significant number of employees during that time.

#Last month, the government sector was “still shedding jobs,” while the private sector gained 9,400 jobs, he said.

#Even in the harshest economic times during the Great Recession and when the unemployment rate was at 10.2 percent, many jobs went unfilled because employers had a difficult time finding qualified people.

#One remedy to change that, Butler said, is to use Georgia’s technical college system to help “overcome the skills gap” created when job applicants do not have the proper training or technological skills to be hired.

#Technical schools can quickly adapt to the training and technology required by employers, he said.

#Jobs also remain vacant in Georgia, Butler said, because even qualified job applicants can lack the “soft skills” needed to land or keep a job. Soft skills include the ability to get along with coworkers, to arrive at work on time, and have zero or few absences from work.

#“This is something that we need to get a handle on,” Butler said, noting that the issue of qualified applicants and employees who lack soft skills is a nationwide problem. Georgia is doing something about it, he said.

#The Department of Labor now offers the “Georgia Best” program that teaches and stresses work-related soft skills in the classroom. Students are evaluated by a teacher in much the same way a supervisor would in the workplace, Butler said.

#Members of the business community are encouraged to participate in the program. For example, students attend mock interviews with employers.

#The 18-month-old program began in 20 high schools and is now offered in more than 170 schools statewide, Butler said. The program will be offered in middle schools starting in January 2014, he said.

#The Department of Labor also holds job-readiness expos for cities and companies to help teach interview and resume-writing skills, as well as soft skills, to adults who are having a difficult time finding a job.

#About a month after a job-readiness expo is held, a job expo is held at the same place, and “people are finding jobs and getting back to work,” Butler said.

#Butler lives in Carrollton, where he worked as a real estate appraiser for his family’s business. Before becoming the state labor commissioner in 2011, he serv

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