* Tennessee: 6.9 percent, down 0.3 percent
* Georgia: 7.1, percent, down 0.2 percent
* U.S. average: 6.7 percent, up 0.1 percent
Sources: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Labor
ROCK SPRING, Ga. - Caleb Bradley thought he was getting to Thursday's job fair early when he arrived nearly an hour before its scheduled start.
But with hundreds of other workers also looking to land a job and already in line, the unemployed 22-year-old had to wait more than 90 minutes just to get into the Walker County Civic Center where 40 employers gathered to take applications and talk with prospective hires.
"I've worked since I was 16, but it's tough finding a full-time job that pays enough to get by," said Bradley, who dropped out of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in January and has been looking for work back at his home in Lafayette ever since. "There's obviously a lot of competition for the good jobs that are available, but it's encouraging to see so many employers who are hiring people again."
More than 40 North Georgia employers collectively were trying to fill more than 1,000 available jobs, ranging from ticket takers for Lake Winnepesaukah to diesel mechanics for U.S. Xpress Enterprises.
"Today is almost like a major announcement of a new employer with so many jobs being offered," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told job seekers during Thursday's fair.
Butler said Georgia's jobless rate fell during February to 7.1 percent -- its lowest level since the Great Recession hit Georgia's housing-based economy in 2008. Although the jobless rate in both Georgia and neighboring Tennessee remained above the U.S. rate of 6.7 percent last month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Georgia's economy is growing faster than the nation as a whole. He expects unemployment in the Peach State to fall below the U.S. rate within the next year.
Deal said private employers have added 240,000 jobs since he became governor in January 2011 "and we're committed to keeping Georgia a business friendly state to add far more jobs."
The long lines of those seeking employment at Thursday's job fair "shows that people want to work and are interested in getting a job or getting a better job than what they have now, and that's a good sign," Deal said.
For those who might not have the right skills for available jobs, Deal said he hopes changes in Georgia's HOPE college scholarship program will help better align worker training with job needs.
The revisions adopted by the Georgia General Assembly on its final day Thursday will pay all of the tuition for students who enroll in high-demand training programs in long-haul truckings, practical nursing, early childhood education, welding, diesel mechanics, health care technology and information technology.
"Government can't create the jobs we need, but we can try to create a favorable regulatory and business climate and do what we can to provide the training for our workforce for the jobs in the private sector," Deal said during his visit to the Walker County job fair.
Such training and retraining could be vital for many displaced workers looking to restart their careers.
Richard Brooks, 53, lost his job as a CAD designer at Burner Systems in Chattanooga after 34 years last year. Brooks has worked helping his neighbor with remodeling jobs, but he is eager to get a steady paycheck again.
"Frankly, it's been a lot harder finding a job than I thought, but I've got my resume out to a few folks here and I've got a job interview Friday so hopefully something will come out of this," Brooks said.
Darrell Fleming, 60, lost his last job in October at a Fort Oglethorpe ink refilling job after previously working at Shaw Industries.
"I've been putting in applications all over for the past five months and I've made some contacts today trying to find a new job -- that's all you can do," he said. "I've spent a lot of my retirement trying to get by and I need a job."
Employment figures released Thursday in Tennessee and Georgia show the market for Fleming and other unemployed workers is continuing to improve. Over the past year, Georgia has added 57,000 net new jobs and Tennessee has added another 37,700 jobs.
"We're seeing a lot of good news across most sectors, but probably the one we're the most excited about is construction," Butler said. "The one-month growth rate is 2.3 percent and over the year it's 6.6 percent, which is outpacing all other sectors."
The Great Recession hit Georgia -- and Northwest Georgia in particular -- harder than most of America because of the local dependence upon housing, construction and floorcovering.
"Those industries are coming back and Georgia is well positioned to once again be a leading state in economic growth," Butler said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.