ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's unemployment rate has dropped for eight straight months — a signal that more Georgians are looking for and finding jobs, the state Labor Department announced Thursday.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the state's unemployment rate for March was 9 percent, compared to 9.8 percent in March 2011. The figure is the lowest since February 2009, when unemployment in the state stood at 8.9 percent.
The numbers are a sign that Georgia's job market is stabilizing, Butler said.
"What we're seeing now is a lot of our Georgia companies are feeling more optimistic," Butler said. "I think we're seeing the effects of them going out and spending some of their capital and looking towards the future."
The state's long-term unemployed figure also declined to 239,200, the lowest number since September 2010. Butler pointed to gains in the leisure and hospitality, business and professional services and manufacturing services as further proof of progress.
Georgia's unemployment rate in March was still above the national average of 8.2 percent. The state gained 35,600 jobs since March 2011, including 13,900 between February and March. The state's labor force participation rate — which measures the percentage of people working or looking for work — has also increased for 11 consecutive months, Butler said.
Those numbers are a good sign, said Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
"That tells me the real strength of the economy," said Essig. "The issue going forward is can we consistently have numbers like this for a long period of time? The hole that the recession caused is extremely deep."
The state would need to post similar numbers for two or three years to get back to its pre-recession employment levels, Essig said.
Butler said the climate is improving as the state heads into the summer with the unemployment rate on the decline — a possible reversal of last year's trend.
"Overall, the picture is improving," he said. "You can't say that the picture is totally rosy, but it's getting much better."