Average duration of state unemployment benefits:
• Georgia: 13.4 weeks
• Tennessee: 15.4 weeks
• Alabama: 15 weeks
• National average: 17.6 weeks
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Though Georgia's unemployment rate ranks ninth-worst in the nation at 9.7 percent, the state Department of Labor says that the recently unemployed are getting back to work more quickly than ever.
Mark Butler, Georgia's labor commissioner, said that Georgians use less of their state unemployment benefit than almost any other state, stopping benefits after an average of just 13.4 weeks.
Butler credited Georgia's practice of tying benefits to job training re-employment services with shorter duration of state payouts.
"When people think of a labor department, traditionally they think of the unemployment office," Butler said. "In Georgia, we are trying to stop that. This is an employment office."
Georgia was bested only by sparsely populated North Dakota, which boasts the nation's lowest jobless rate at 3.3 percent and had the shortest average state unemployment of just 12.5 weeks.
The state also handily beat the national average by a month and bested Tennessee, which pays state unemployment benefits for an average of 15.4 weeks.
Despite the decline in benefit duration, Georgia still ranks among the hardest-hit by joblessness, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The state jobless rate of 9.7 percent is a full point greater than that of Tennessee, and is even higher than that of Alabama, which has an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
John Garrett, UC Foundation professor of economics at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, chalked up the seemingly contradictory statistics to increased "churn" in Georgia's labor market.
"There's nothing wrong with churn because we can pick and choose jobs; it means that people can find a better job or something that pays them more," Garrett said.
However, when a high rate of job turnover is combined with a high unemployment rate, it paints the picture of a revolving door, he said.
Economist Roger Tutterow, Atlanta-based professor at Mercer University, said Georgia's hangover from the residential real estate crash is the primary reason for lingering high unemployment, especially in callings such as construction and real estate.
"We have more rotation in the jobs where individuals are entering and exiting unemployment, so though the duration of employment is shorter, still you have people exiting," he said.
Georgia's nearly decade-old Georgia Works program was among the first in the country to tie benefits to job training, and the new statistics are an indication the program may have achieved some degree of success, he added.
"The design of that program was to shorten the period that people are unemployed, so there may be policy positions that could account for the lower duration in unemployment," Tutterow said.
Whether the glass is half empty or half full, there's light at the end of the tunnel for Georgia's workers, said Tom Krause, press secretary for Butler.
The state's December unemployment rate fell from the previous two months in 2011 and dropped significantly since December 2010, Krause said.
"The average duration on unemployment statistic helps us see why: Our labor market is strengthening," he said.
Krause said many of the jobless making up Georgia's 9.7 percent unemployment rate have been out of work for a long time and have moved onto the federal jobless list. But the recently unemployed are seeing a more active labor market.
The state's rapid response teams take skilled workers and plug them into corresponding jobs, but many workers may have skills that no longer are in demand. That's where state training programs kick in, he said.
"Unfortunately, we still have a problem with job loss and long-term unemployment," he wrote in an e-mail. "Our average duration on unemployment, however, shows that we are moving in the right direction."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.