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About


The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


November 25, 2014

Employment Momentum Grows in Florida and the Retail Sector

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published October 2014 state-level labor market data on November 21. For Sixth District states, a couple of factors stood out. First, after several months of anemic job growth, Florida employers added lots of jobs. In fact, Florida contributed 61 percent of October's net payrolls to the region. Second, although job gains were solid in a number of sectors, retail shined with 13,300 jobs added on net across the District, a figure that represents nearly half of the 27,100 jobs added to the sector in the entire United States in October. These regional retail job growth data confirm what the folks in our Regional Economic Information Network described earlier this month in their recap of economic intelligence gathered from business contacts across the Southeast: retailers anticipate strong holiday sales, and this anticipation translated into robust seasonal hiring in the retail sector in October.

A summary of the payroll and unemployment data for Sixth District states sheds more light on recent activity.

Payrolls flex some muscle
Employers in all Sixth District states except Mississippi added to payrolls: 56,600 jobs were added on net (see the chart). Florida dominated aggregate net gains in October, adding 34,400 jobs on net. Most of these gains came from the leisure and hospitality sector (up 9,300). Big contributors to Florida gains also included the educational and health services (up 9,000), professional and business services (up 6,100), and goods-producing sectors (up 5,100). (The good-producing sector was up 6,200 payrolls from construction alone but was reduced by losses in manufacturing.)

The sectors with payroll additions varied by state, though gains in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector were prevalent, with 16,800 net jobs added. Gains in this sector were dominated by retail trade (see the chart), which was the only sector tracked by all states that added jobs in every Sixth District state in October. This increase is typical for October, as retailers gear up for the holidays.

Employment momentum in the retail sector has been building for most of the region's states for a few months now (see the chart).

District gains in the professional and business services sector were also sizeable, with 13,100 jobs added. Momentum in this sector has been building in district states (see the chart). However, two states subtracted jobs from this sector in October: Louisiana (down 1,200) and Mississippi (down 1,500).

A few other facts about the Sixth District's October payrolls and sectors are noteworthy:

  • Alabama added 2,200 jobs on net. The leisure and hospitality (up 3,200) and professional and business services (up 1,400) sectors were the top contributors. The biggest losses occurred in the government (down 1,500); trade, transportation, and utilities (down 600); and financial activities (down 500) sectors.
  • In Florida, aside from job gains mentioned above, payrolls fell in the information (down 2,100) and financial activities (down 100) sectors.
  • Employers in Georgia added 11,600 jobs on net. The largest gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities (up7,900, with 4,700 of those payrolls from wholesale trade) and professional and business services (up 5,400). The biggest losses came from government (down 3,200) and financial activities (down 1,200).
  • Louisiana added 1,200 payrolls on net, most of which came from the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 1,500) sector. That sector was up 2,900 from retail trade, reduced by losses in wholesale trade) and educational and health services (up 1,200) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in leisure and hospitality (down 2,600) and professional and business services (down 1,200).
  • Mississippi was the only district state to subtract payrolls from the aggregate district figure. The largest losses came from the professional and business services (down 1,500) and government (down 700) sectors. The only gains occurred in the educational and health services (up 1,300), leisure and hospitality (up 500), and trade, transportation, and utilities (up 400) sectors.
  • Tennessee employers increased payrolls by 7,900 on net. The largest increases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 3,500) and professional and business services (up 2,900) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in educational and health services (down 700) and leisure and hospitality (down 400) sectors.

Regional unemployment declines, if only slightly
The aggregate district unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in October, a decline of 0.2 percentage point from September (see the chart).

The rate fell in all states except for Louisiana, where it increased to 6.2 percent from 6.0 percent the previous month and was the sixth straight month of an increasing unemployment rate in that state. As I reported last month, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short run, since the state added jobs yet appears to have increased its labor force participation rate.

The unemployment rate fell in all remaining District states. Alabama's rate fell 0.3 percentage point in October to 6.3, its lowest rate in nine months. Florida's rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.0 percent, the lowest it's been in more than six years. The unemployment rate in Georgia fell for the second month in a row, to 7.7 percent in October from 7.9 percent in September. Though Georgia's unemployment rate declined, it had the highest rate in the United States in October for the third month in a row, at 7.7 percent. Mississippi's rate declined 0.1 percentage point to 7.6 percent, the lowest it's been in six months. In Tennessee the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from September.

So once again, collectively, the Sixth District states' labor market showed continued strengthening in October, particularly the state of Florida and the retail sector.

Hopefully, this progress continues for the month of November. We'll see when the data are released on December 19.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

November 7, 2014

South Florida Maintains Momentum

In a SouthPoint post in August, I discussed improving economic conditions in South Florida. This momentum is continuing into the last quarter of 2014, with business activity generally strong and some new developments in business investment.

From mid-September to the end of October, business contacts for the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed continued to indicate improving business sentiment in the region. Economic activity and overall demand reflect steady growth. One exception to this steadily improving performance is the real estate market, which remains a very active sector in South Florida, with prices continuing to increase.

Employment and labor markets
Business contacts continued to report a concern with a skill-set gap between job seekers and available job opportunities. Contacts across several sectors report difficulty finding skilled labor for specialized positions in technology, mathematics, engineering, management, and lending. In a few sectors, the labor market was reported as tightening.

Contacts in the hospitality industry discussed how the tourism sector's expansion has resulted in job growth. The application of technology has reduced the need for some labor resources. However, creating "experiences" for travelers still requires a human touch, thus the need for additional workers as the sector expands and new venues come online. The part-time to full-time employee ratio has remained stable for some time in this sector, with contract workers being used for specific projects. (Speaking of tourism, industry contacts continue to report construction of new hotels, sports venues, and other attractions, in addition to the renovation of restaurants, hotels, and convention centers.)

Costs, prices, and wages
Business contacts reported some increases in costs, primarily in rent, total compensation, and commodities. Increases in construction costs were mainly associated with increasing land and labor costs. Rising commodity prices were affecting the ability to increase prices and improve profit margins. Contacts reported that—with the exception of the real estate and food services sectors—passing through price increases has met with little success, although many contacts have attempted to raise prices or are considering doing so in the near future.

The commercial real estate rental market remains quite active. Real estate professionals are reporting that as a result of a shortage of industrial space, landlords are able to increase rents, spurring an increase in average asking rents.

Contacts continue to report increasing wage pressures for specific skilled labor. Rising health care costs have been described as a significant concern that is driving total compensation costs up. The reports were mixed as to the percentage of increases, although most said increases ranged between 10 percent and 20 percent. Some contacts are absorbing these costs rather than increasing wages, and others have passed on some or all of the cost to the employee.

Availability of credit and investment
Banking sector contacts all reported being well capitalized, though small businesses noted continued credit constraint. Contacts in regional banking expect the combination of traditional and nontraditional structures (for example, supply-chain financing and accounts receivable purchases) to gain momentum through the end of the year and into 2015.

The number of reports of investments and capital expenditures increased. South Florida real estate companies indicated little slowdown in foreign capital moving into the market. The prevailing perspective is that the United States still offers a strong safe haven.

Overall, South Florida business contacts continue to report positive activity, and an optimistic outlook prevails in the near term.

By Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch

August 6, 2014

Sunnier Times in the Sunshine State

During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Jacksonville Branch talked with more than 30 Florida business leaders, including branch directors, about economic conditions. As one who has been involved with the REIN program since its inception in 2008, I can attest that, while “slow and steady” remains a theme in this economic recovery, the sentiment of our contacts over the past two months has been the most upbeat since before the recession.

General business conditions
Almost all firms reported increases in business activity. Two design/build firms indicated robust demand and reasonably strong pipelines, including a strengthening in industrial and office development. For the first time, we heard of some speculative building in the commercial sector from three different contacts. Housing continued its slow improvement, though several contacts used the word “bumpy” to describe activity. The appetite for auto purchases continued, as a recent SouthPoint post discussed, with lenders citing robust auto-lending activity. Some banks also reported that consumers are now slowly adding to outstanding credit card balances.

Employment and hiring
Labor markets tightened as the number and types of difficult-to-fill positions increased. In addition to highly skilled positions that are normally a challenge to fill (including information technology and engineering), contacts shared frustrations with filling midlevel positions such as analysts. In construction, finding subcontractors and skilled laborers was harder than normal. However, one contact saw a 20 percent annual increase in revenue as clients resumed a normal hiring pace.

Labor and input costs
Contacts reported seeing wage pressures in their organizations. For example, demand for truck drivers that one firm described as “significant” led to a 33 percent pay increase since the beginning of 2014. One retail contact reported wage increases for maintenance positions as the “construction boom in the area lures these workers away.” Most contacts previously noted merit programs of between 2–3 percent. However, for the first time, several contacts discussed plans for more aggressive increases of 4–5 percent. Regarding health care, most anticipate premiums to continue growing significantly, and many have self-insured to mitigate rising costs.

Most contacts described nonlabor input cost increases as benign. Although the cost of some construction-related materials was a cause for concern earlier this year, most of this volatility has dissipated. While most contacts do not claim much pricing power, some companies are seeing improved margins as they are able to push through increases in the form of higher sales prices.

Credit and investment
Contacts at medium and large companies noted that while credit is readily available, many are still risk-averse and avoiding taking on debt, relying instead on cash flow or internal reserves to fund projects. Companies that do borrow are undergoing “rigorous but rational underwriting.” One construction contact said that many of his larger clients are no longer just catching up from the recession but are now willing to take risk and invest in adding capacity. A bank also reported more risk-taking among customers, especially in commercial real estate and equipment leasing. At the consumer level, real estate agents and lenders referred to qualified mortgages as something of an impediment to mortgage loan activity, but they generally viewed the more rigorous process as worth the effort to reduce risk.

Since June, the consensus from REIN contacts at the Jacksonville Branch was largely positive. Overall demand conditions have improved, though some expressed concerns about regulatory impact. Some contacts specifically mentioned dissipating headwinds as a reason for increased investment, including one contact who sees enough improvement in the economic environment that the company has changed its strategy from diversification to more rapidly expanding its footprint with aggressive new revenue goals.

Does this jibe with what you, our readers, are seeing? As always, your thoughts are welcome.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

July 9, 2014

Southeastern States Mind the (Skills) Gap

During the past few years, we have heard from a significant number of regional business contacts about the challenges they experience filling certain positions and concerns about a skills gap facing the Southeast. We heard this from various industries, most often about engineering, construction, and IT jobs. The most recent Southeastern Insights mentions this widespread issue.

This skills shortage situation is not unique to the Southeast. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation published a state-by-state analysis last month measuring performance in a number of areas that contribute to economic prosperity. Their key conclusion reiterates our contacts’ concerns: that mounting skilled-labor shortages are on the horizon to such an extent that they may soon hinder economic growth. According to the study, the current skills gap dilemma is expected to grow substantially as baby boomers retire.  

Fortunately, there’s a bright side: many states have recognized this situation and have taken steps to address the ostensibly approaching workforce crisis. Many of our contacts from both private and public sectors pointed to joint initiatives created by states and businesses designed to confront and abate the situation; which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study says is essential to closing the gaps. Below is a sample, extracted from the study, of some of the efforts Sixth District states have taken:

Alabama

  • In 2013, the state launched a College and Career Ready Task Force charged with identifying ways to better prepare students for the workforce by training them in the skills demanded by growing industries across the state.
  • New and expanding businesses can get workforce development services through the Alabama Industrial Development Training program, which offers services to businesses in need of skilled workers, including preemployment selection and training, leadership development courses, and third-party process improvement assessments.
  • The Alabama Technology Network provides skills training for the manufacturing and high technology workforce. The network connects businesses to the portfolio of training resources and programs provided by the state’s colleges and universities, offering services through regional centers.
  • The Go Build Alabama initiative works to attract talented workers to construction and skilled trades.

Florida

  • Quick Response Training enables new and expanding businesses in need of training to partner with community colleges and other educational institutions in the state to develop and deliver workforce training programs.
  • The Incumbent Worker Training program supports training the existing workforce to enhance and maintain competitiveness.
  • The Career and Professional Education Act guides Florida’s efforts to diversify its economy and develop a more skilled workforce by encouraging collaboration among education, industry, workforce, and economic development stakeholders from across the state.

Georgia

  • In early 2014, the state approved a $44.7 million Science Learning Center on the University of Georgia’s South Campus, providing state-of-the-art facilities aimed at expanding the pipeline for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (often referred to collectively as STEM).
  • Groundbreaking also took place for the Georgia BioScience Training Center, which will support training for companies that choose to locate within the state. Georgia Quick Start, the state’s job training program, will build and operate the state-of-the-art biotech training center.

Louisiana

  • Via the Small Business Employee Training Program, employers can receive up to $3,000 to defray the costs of off-the-shelf training programs for an existing employee.
  • The Louisiana Workforce Commission established Workforce Partners to recognize businesses that have committed to building a “job ready” workforce in the state through support and training.
  • The Strategies to Empower People program provides access to job training, job readiness support, vocational education programs, and a variety of other skills-development services for those receiving government assistance.

Mississippi

  • The Workforce Investment Network consists of more than 60 training and employment centers around the state where employers and job seekers can access services like training, job postings, on-the-job training programs, employment screening services, and job placement assistance.
  • The Mississippi Development Authority also maintains a team of workforce specialists who work with colleges, businesses, workforce development professionals, and other stakeholders to identify resources useful to a particular business. The authority also builds partnerships to pursue needed training services.
  • The University of Mississippi maintains a Professional and Workforce Development program, offering online enrichment courses, certification programs, and outreach services, bringing tailored training programs directly to the employer.

Tennessee

  • The Tennessee Job Skills grant program offers support to technology companies that create “high-skill, high-wage” jobs, reimbursing eligible costs incurred in training development implementation.
  • Entrepreneurs in need of quick turnaround in receiving support for training costs can make use of the state’s Job Based Training Reimbursement program, which provides support within the first 90 days after a new job is created and training starts.
  • The FastTrack Job Training Assistance Program offers employers state support to cover costs for classroom instruction, on-the-job training, training-related travel, training vendors, and development of training materials and programming.

Sixth District states appear to be on a solid track to address skills gap challenges, combining investment in training, education, and business assistance as a long-term workforce development strategy. Time will tell if the investment pays off (we should know sooner rather than later, as boomers are expected to start retiring in droves).

To learn more about states’ efforts, as well as their rankings across five policy areas—talent pipeline, exports and international trade, technology and entrepreneurship, business climate, and infrastructure—check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s study. There’s also a nifty interactive map you can use to view state rankings and data easily.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch


November 25, 2014

Employment Momentum Grows in Florida and the Retail Sector

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published October 2014 state-level labor market data on November 21. For Sixth District states, a couple of factors stood out. First, after several months of anemic job growth, Florida employers added lots of jobs. In fact, Florida contributed 61 percent of October's net payrolls to the region. Second, although job gains were solid in a number of sectors, retail shined with 13,300 jobs added on net across the District, a figure that represents nearly half of the 27,100 jobs added to the sector in the entire United States in October. These regional retail job growth data confirm what the folks in our Regional Economic Information Network described earlier this month in their recap of economic intelligence gathered from business contacts across the Southeast: retailers anticipate strong holiday sales, and this anticipation translated into robust seasonal hiring in the retail sector in October.

A summary of the payroll and unemployment data for Sixth District states sheds more light on recent activity.

Payrolls flex some muscle
Employers in all Sixth District states except Mississippi added to payrolls: 56,600 jobs were added on net (see the chart). Florida dominated aggregate net gains in October, adding 34,400 jobs on net. Most of these gains came from the leisure and hospitality sector (up 9,300). Big contributors to Florida gains also included the educational and health services (up 9,000), professional and business services (up 6,100), and goods-producing sectors (up 5,100). (The good-producing sector was up 6,200 payrolls from construction alone but was reduced by losses in manufacturing.)

The sectors with payroll additions varied by state, though gains in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector were prevalent, with 16,800 net jobs added. Gains in this sector were dominated by retail trade (see the chart), which was the only sector tracked by all states that added jobs in every Sixth District state in October. This increase is typical for October, as retailers gear up for the holidays.

Employment momentum in the retail sector has been building for most of the region's states for a few months now (see the chart).

District gains in the professional and business services sector were also sizeable, with 13,100 jobs added. Momentum in this sector has been building in district states (see the chart). However, two states subtracted jobs from this sector in October: Louisiana (down 1,200) and Mississippi (down 1,500).

A few other facts about the Sixth District's October payrolls and sectors are noteworthy:

  • Alabama added 2,200 jobs on net. The leisure and hospitality (up 3,200) and professional and business services (up 1,400) sectors were the top contributors. The biggest losses occurred in the government (down 1,500); trade, transportation, and utilities (down 600); and financial activities (down 500) sectors.
  • In Florida, aside from job gains mentioned above, payrolls fell in the information (down 2,100) and financial activities (down 100) sectors.
  • Employers in Georgia added 11,600 jobs on net. The largest gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities (up7,900, with 4,700 of those payrolls from wholesale trade) and professional and business services (up 5,400). The biggest losses came from government (down 3,200) and financial activities (down 1,200).
  • Louisiana added 1,200 payrolls on net, most of which came from the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 1,500) sector. That sector was up 2,900 from retail trade, reduced by losses in wholesale trade) and educational and health services (up 1,200) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in leisure and hospitality (down 2,600) and professional and business services (down 1,200).
  • Mississippi was the only district state to subtract payrolls from the aggregate district figure. The largest losses came from the professional and business services (down 1,500) and government (down 700) sectors. The only gains occurred in the educational and health services (up 1,300), leisure and hospitality (up 500), and trade, transportation, and utilities (up 400) sectors.
  • Tennessee employers increased payrolls by 7,900 on net. The largest increases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 3,500) and professional and business services (up 2,900) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in educational and health services (down 700) and leisure and hospitality (down 400) sectors.

Regional unemployment declines, if only slightly
The aggregate district unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in October, a decline of 0.2 percentage point from September (see the chart).

The rate fell in all states except for Louisiana, where it increased to 6.2 percent from 6.0 percent the previous month and was the sixth straight month of an increasing unemployment rate in that state. As I reported last month, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short run, since the state added jobs yet appears to have increased its labor force participation rate.

The unemployment rate fell in all remaining District states. Alabama's rate fell 0.3 percentage point in October to 6.3, its lowest rate in nine months. Florida's rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.0 percent, the lowest it's been in more than six years. The unemployment rate in Georgia fell for the second month in a row, to 7.7 percent in October from 7.9 percent in September. Though Georgia's unemployment rate declined, it had the highest rate in the United States in October for the third month in a row, at 7.7 percent. Mississippi's rate declined 0.1 percentage point to 7.6 percent, the lowest it's been in six months. In Tennessee the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from September.

So once again, collectively, the Sixth District states' labor market showed continued strengthening in October, particularly the state of Florida and the retail sector.

Hopefully, this progress continues for the month of November. We'll see when the data are released on December 19.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

November 7, 2014

South Florida Maintains Momentum

In a SouthPoint post in August, I discussed improving economic conditions in South Florida. This momentum is continuing into the last quarter of 2014, with business activity generally strong and some new developments in business investment.

From mid-September to the end of October, business contacts for the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed continued to indicate improving business sentiment in the region. Economic activity and overall demand reflect steady growth. One exception to this steadily improving performance is the real estate market, which remains a very active sector in South Florida, with prices continuing to increase.

Employment and labor markets
Business contacts continued to report a concern with a skill-set gap between job seekers and available job opportunities. Contacts across several sectors report difficulty finding skilled labor for specialized positions in technology, mathematics, engineering, management, and lending. In a few sectors, the labor market was reported as tightening.

Contacts in the hospitality industry discussed how the tourism sector's expansion has resulted in job growth. The application of technology has reduced the need for some labor resources. However, creating "experiences" for travelers still requires a human touch, thus the need for additional workers as the sector expands and new venues come online. The part-time to full-time employee ratio has remained stable for some time in this sector, with contract workers being used for specific projects. (Speaking of tourism, industry contacts continue to report construction of new hotels, sports venues, and other attractions, in addition to the renovation of restaurants, hotels, and convention centers.)

Costs, prices, and wages
Business contacts reported some increases in costs, primarily in rent, total compensation, and commodities. Increases in construction costs were mainly associated with increasing land and labor costs. Rising commodity prices were affecting the ability to increase prices and improve profit margins. Contacts reported that—with the exception of the real estate and food services sectors—passing through price increases has met with little success, although many contacts have attempted to raise prices or are considering doing so in the near future.

The commercial real estate rental market remains quite active. Real estate professionals are reporting that as a result of a shortage of industrial space, landlords are able to increase rents, spurring an increase in average asking rents.

Contacts continue to report increasing wage pressures for specific skilled labor. Rising health care costs have been described as a significant concern that is driving total compensation costs up. The reports were mixed as to the percentage of increases, although most said increases ranged between 10 percent and 20 percent. Some contacts are absorbing these costs rather than increasing wages, and others have passed on some or all of the cost to the employee.

Availability of credit and investment
Banking sector contacts all reported being well capitalized, though small businesses noted continued credit constraint. Contacts in regional banking expect the combination of traditional and nontraditional structures (for example, supply-chain financing and accounts receivable purchases) to gain momentum through the end of the year and into 2015.

The number of reports of investments and capital expenditures increased. South Florida real estate companies indicated little slowdown in foreign capital moving into the market. The prevailing perspective is that the United States still offers a strong safe haven.

Overall, South Florida business contacts continue to report positive activity, and an optimistic outlook prevails in the near term.

By Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch

August 6, 2014

Sunnier Times in the Sunshine State

During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Jacksonville Branch talked with more than 30 Florida business leaders, including branch directors, about economic conditions. As one who has been involved with the REIN program since its inception in 2008, I can attest that, while “slow and steady” remains a theme in this economic recovery, the sentiment of our contacts over the past two months has been the most upbeat since before the recession.

General business conditions
Almost all firms reported increases in business activity. Two design/build firms indicated robust demand and reasonably strong pipelines, including a strengthening in industrial and office development. For the first time, we heard of some speculative building in the commercial sector from three different contacts. Housing continued its slow improvement, though several contacts used the word “bumpy” to describe activity. The appetite for auto purchases continued, as a recent SouthPoint post discussed, with lenders citing robust auto-lending activity. Some banks also reported that consumers are now slowly adding to outstanding credit card balances.

Employment and hiring
Labor markets tightened as the number and types of difficult-to-fill positions increased. In addition to highly skilled positions that are normally a challenge to fill (including information technology and engineering), contacts shared frustrations with filling midlevel positions such as analysts. In construction, finding subcontractors and skilled laborers was harder than normal. However, one contact saw a 20 percent annual increase in revenue as clients resumed a normal hiring pace.

Labor and input costs
Contacts reported seeing wage pressures in their organizations. For example, demand for truck drivers that one firm described as “significant” led to a 33 percent pay increase since the beginning of 2014. One retail contact reported wage increases for maintenance positions as the “construction boom in the area lures these workers away.” Most contacts previously noted merit programs of between 2–3 percent. However, for the first time, several contacts discussed plans for more aggressive increases of 4–5 percent. Regarding health care, most anticipate premiums to continue growing significantly, and many have self-insured to mitigate rising costs.

Most contacts described nonlabor input cost increases as benign. Although the cost of some construction-related materials was a cause for concern earlier this year, most of this volatility has dissipated. While most contacts do not claim much pricing power, some companies are seeing improved margins as they are able to push through increases in the form of higher sales prices.

Credit and investment
Contacts at medium and large companies noted that while credit is readily available, many are still risk-averse and avoiding taking on debt, relying instead on cash flow or internal reserves to fund projects. Companies that do borrow are undergoing “rigorous but rational underwriting.” One construction contact said that many of his larger clients are no longer just catching up from the recession but are now willing to take risk and invest in adding capacity. A bank also reported more risk-taking among customers, especially in commercial real estate and equipment leasing. At the consumer level, real estate agents and lenders referred to qualified mortgages as something of an impediment to mortgage loan activity, but they generally viewed the more rigorous process as worth the effort to reduce risk.

Since June, the consensus from REIN contacts at the Jacksonville Branch was largely positive. Overall demand conditions have improved, though some expressed concerns about regulatory impact. Some contacts specifically mentioned dissipating headwinds as a reason for increased investment, including one contact who sees enough improvement in the economic environment that the company has changed its strategy from diversification to more rapidly expanding its footprint with aggressive new revenue goals.

Does this jibe with what you, our readers, are seeing? As always, your thoughts are welcome.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

July 9, 2014

Southeastern States Mind the (Skills) Gap

During the past few years, we have heard from a significant number of regional business contacts about the challenges they experience filling certain positions and concerns about a skills gap facing the Southeast. We heard this from various industries, most often about engineering, construction, and IT jobs. The most recent Southeastern Insights mentions this widespread issue.

This skills shortage situation is not unique to the Southeast. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation published a state-by-state analysis last month measuring performance in a number of areas that contribute to economic prosperity. Their key conclusion reiterates our contacts’ concerns: that mounting skilled-labor shortages are on the horizon to such an extent that they may soon hinder economic growth. According to the study, the current skills gap dilemma is expected to grow substantially as baby boomers retire.  

Fortunately, there’s a bright side: many states have recognized this situation and have taken steps to address the ostensibly approaching workforce crisis. Many of our contacts from both private and public sectors pointed to joint initiatives created by states and businesses designed to confront and abate the situation; which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study says is essential to closing the gaps. Below is a sample, extracted from the study, of some of the efforts Sixth District states have taken:

Alabama

  • In 2013, the state launched a College and Career Ready Task Force charged with identifying ways to better prepare students for the workforce by training them in the skills demanded by growing industries across the state.
  • New and expanding businesses can get workforce development services through the Alabama Industrial Development Training program, which offers services to businesses in need of skilled workers, including preemployment selection and training, leadership development courses, and third-party process improvement assessments.
  • The Alabama Technology Network provides skills training for the manufacturing and high technology workforce. The network connects businesses to the portfolio of training resources and programs provided by the state’s colleges and universities, offering services through regional centers.
  • The Go Build Alabama initiative works to attract talented workers to construction and skilled trades.

Florida

  • Quick Response Training enables new and expanding businesses in need of training to partner with community colleges and other educational institutions in the state to develop and deliver workforce training programs.
  • The Incumbent Worker Training program supports training the existing workforce to enhance and maintain competitiveness.
  • The Career and Professional Education Act guides Florida’s efforts to diversify its economy and develop a more skilled workforce by encouraging collaboration among education, industry, workforce, and economic development stakeholders from across the state.

Georgia

  • In early 2014, the state approved a $44.7 million Science Learning Center on the University of Georgia’s South Campus, providing state-of-the-art facilities aimed at expanding the pipeline for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (often referred to collectively as STEM).
  • Groundbreaking also took place for the Georgia BioScience Training Center, which will support training for companies that choose to locate within the state. Georgia Quick Start, the state’s job training program, will build and operate the state-of-the-art biotech training center.

Louisiana

  • Via the Small Business Employee Training Program, employers can receive up to $3,000 to defray the costs of off-the-shelf training programs for an existing employee.
  • The Louisiana Workforce Commission established Workforce Partners to recognize businesses that have committed to building a “job ready” workforce in the state through support and training.
  • The Strategies to Empower People program provides access to job training, job readiness support, vocational education programs, and a variety of other skills-development services for those receiving government assistance.

Mississippi

  • The Workforce Investment Network consists of more than 60 training and employment centers around the state where employers and job seekers can access services like training, job postings, on-the-job training programs, employment screening services, and job placement assistance.
  • The Mississippi Development Authority also maintains a team of workforce specialists who work with colleges, businesses, workforce development professionals, and other stakeholders to identify resources useful to a particular business. The authority also builds partnerships to pursue needed training services.
  • The University of Mississippi maintains a Professional and Workforce Development program, offering online enrichment courses, certification programs, and outreach services, bringing tailored training programs directly to the employer.

Tennessee

  • The Tennessee Job Skills grant program offers support to technology companies that create “high-skill, high-wage” jobs, reimbursing eligible costs incurred in training development implementation.
  • Entrepreneurs in need of quick turnaround in receiving support for training costs can make use of the state’s Job Based Training Reimbursement program, which provides support within the first 90 days after a new job is created and training starts.
  • The FastTrack Job Training Assistance Program offers employers state support to cover costs for classroom instruction, on-the-job training, training-related travel, training vendors, and development of training materials and programming.

Sixth District states appear to be on a solid track to address skills gap challenges, combining investment in training, education, and business assistance as a long-term workforce development strategy. Time will tell if the investment pays off (we should know sooner rather than later, as boomers are expected to start retiring in droves).

To learn more about states’ efforts, as well as their rankings across five policy areas—talent pipeline, exports and international trade, technology and entrepreneurship, business climate, and infrastructure—check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s study. There’s also a nifty interactive map you can use to view state rankings and data easily.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch