Improvement seen in jobs picture, labor commissioner says

Staff Photo: Camie Young Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler speaks to the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

Staff Photo: Camie Young Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler speaks to the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

DULUTH -- Things may still seem pretty tough these days, but Labor Commissioner Mark Butler points out that the job market is a lot better than it used to be.

Butler told a crowd of business leaders at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday that his office is working hard to put Georgians back to work, after the economic downturn.

"People are beginning to see improvement in the jobs picture," the Republican official said.

Two years ago, when he was elected to office, Georgia's unemployment was 10.4 percent, but May's rate was 8.3 percent. That number was a slight uptick, but Butler said the increase was due to an increase in the workforce, because the state again added jobs.

All through the rockiest of times, thousands of jobs were available, but Butler said many employers had trouble finding skilled labor. For those companies, his office has dispatched coordinators to work with local technical colleges to provide training, from specialized welding techniques to an information technology function that was no longer being taught because those jobs had been sent overseas.

Employers have also expressed frustration with people lacking in "soft skills," which include things like showing up for work on time, acting and dressing appropriately and other things needed to maintain a job.

"We called it common sense," he said of learning about the problem. "This is a huge issue, doesn't matter if you are hiring a computer programmer or a construction worker."

To combat the problem, which causes 69 percent of first hires to lose their jobs, Butler's office has created the Georgia BEST program, aimed at high schoolers. Piloted in 20 schools a year and a half ago, the program is now in 170 high schools and in January will be introduced in middle schools.

For adults who haven't had luck in the job search, special teams, called Special Workforce Assistance Teams, have been dispatched to communities to give people a "reality check" about why they haven't been able to get a job.

While Georgia has had a lot of success in drawing companies to the area in recent years, Butler said he wants to change the perception of the Department of Labor from being seen only as the "unemployment office."

"The best thing we can do for the state of Georgia is to get people back to work," he said. "... We're here to help, not hurt."