Job vacancies up, unemployment dropping, but still high

Job openings in Washington recently increased for the first time in nearly three years, but had little effect on the...

By Ryan Wynne

When Lynden Farmers Insurance owner Christina Abundis found out her employee Ana was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave, she knew she would need to hire a replacement quickly because she needed Ana to train the new employee. The problem was, Abundis couldn’t afford to employ Ana and a new worker at the same time.

“At that point there was absolutely no way that I could have had both employees working full time,” Abundis said.

Abundis isn’t alone. Many businesses want to hire, but that want hasn’t yielded job vacancies, until recently.

Job openings in Washington recently increased for the first time in nearly three years. This spring, an estimated 38,732 vacancies were identified throughout the state, compared to 32,635 in spring 2009, according to the Employment Security Department’s “Spring 2010 Washington Job-Vacancy Survey.”

With 1,981 job vacancies, the northwest region, which includes Whatcom, Island, Skagit and San Juan counties, accounted for 5 percent of the total state-wide vacancies, compared with the Seattle/King County area’s 44 percent, or 17,098 vacancies.

Abundis created one of those vacancies. With the help of WorkSource, Abundis was able to find suitable candidates for the job and a program that would pay half of her new employee’s wages for her first six months on the job.

WorkSource is a free government-sponsored tool for jobseekers and businesses. With unemployment numbers lurking around 8 percent and businesses cautious about what hiring will do to their bottom lines, it’s one of several tools many in the community are embracing.

Looking for workers

C.J. Seitz, Northwest area director for the Employment Security Department, said WorkSource had approximately 450 business clients in June. Those businesses used the government-funded program to do everything from finding available tax credits to posting jobs on its website.

Mark Varadian, communications manager for the Employment Security Department, said employers have two options for listing open positions with the department. They can simply post the job on the program’s website themselves, free of charge, or they can use the program’s more comprehensive service, which is also free.

When employers use the comprehensive service, WorkSource will post the job for them and go so far as to filter through applications and resumes.

“This is particularly helpful for small businesses,” he said, explaining that many small business owners don’t have human resources departments to weed through applications.

Help for small businesses is particularly important in this area. Seitz said 89 percent of the Northwest region’s businesses are considered small according to federal definitions, and provide 69 percent of the jobs in the area.

One of those small businesses is Farmers Insurance in Lynden, and owner Abundis said WorkSource was instrumental in getting the employee she needed when she needed her.

“It was a great resource,” Abundis said. “We didn’t have to change how we were running our business.”

Another service WorkSource can help connect employers to is called the Shared Work Program, and Varadian said interest in that program is growing. That is likely because it’s an alternative to laying off workers at a time when many businesses are faced with doing just that.

Here’s how it works: Instead of laying off a worker, an employer can reduce that worker’s hours. If the employer qualifies, he or she could partially compensate for the worker’s reduced wages through unemployment benefits.

“All those jobs are jobs that could be at risk, and what this does is allow our community to retain our vital jobs,” Seitz said.

Employers can also use WorkSource to access the Work Opportunity and New Hire tax credits. The Work Opportunity credit is a federal credit that gives employers a tax break for hiring certain jobseekers. That credit can be for as much as $9,000 per person over two years. The New Hire credit encompasses the payroll tax exemption, which employers can receive for hiring people who are unemployed or underemployed, and the retention credit, which they can get for retaining those employees.

But employers aren’t the only ones who can access WorkSource aid. Jobseekers can also use the program.

Looking for work

Abundis knew she could turn to WorkSource when she needed help hiring because she had used the service twice before, once to hire another employee. But the first time she used the service was seven years ago, when she was looking for a job of her own.

In 2003, Abundis found out she would have to leave her gig as a stay-at-home mom to rejoin the workforce. Finding a job at that time was a breeze compared to finding one today, but Abundis had been out of the game for more than three years and thought employers would turn her down because she wasn’t up to speed.

Abundis’s time at home didn’t stop her from finding a job quickly. With the help of WorkSource, Abundis got a job with a local insurance company and two years later was in a position to take ownership of another insurance company: Farmers Insurance in Lynden.

Since Abundis’ time on the other side of the employment fence, the number of visits to WorkSource has dramatically increased.

WorkSource has seen an approximately 78 percent year-over-year increase. In June, approximately 1,650 job seekers used the program; that’s up from the about 1,550 who used it in May, Seitz said. She said the increase could be a result of the growing number of unemployment benefit claimants who are reaching the end of allowable claim days.

There are 1,300 people in the area who have exhausted, or are close to exhausting benefits, Seitz said. Those folks are likely starting to feel anxious as their benefits inch closer to running out, and are using WorkSource more to find jobs. That way they aren’t without income when exhaustion dates arrive, she said.

That desperation may explain why more job seekers are starting to look outside of previously held titles and positions. Seitz said jobseekers are becoming more willing to consider taking jobs that use skills other than primary skills they once built careers around.

For instance, Varadian said, say someone used to have a job as an electrician, but was laid off. Instead of that person’s  looking only for electrician jobs, WorkSource would help the jobseeker recognize other skills she or he gained while working as an electrician – maybe it was customer service or project management – and will help the electrician find a job in a new field.

For jobseekers who feel that their transferable skills won’t cut it, there is another option. Worker retraining programs are offered at Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College. The program helps unemployed and dislocated workers develop new skills and strengthen current skills, and it provides eligible students with financial assistance using the Worker Retraining state funded grant.

Out of the woods?

Despite an increase in the number of state and regional job vacancies, there are still more people looking for work than there are openings.

Jim Vleming, regional labor economist for Washington state, said the unemployment rate in Whatcom County declined in June to 7.8 percent from May’s 8.3 percent. June 2010 numbers are better than June 2009, when the unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. Still, Vleming said, unemployment numbers remain high – the rate was 4.1 percent in June 2007.

Vleming said the county gained only 100 jobs gained from May to June, and that’s a disappointing number.

“Back in the good old days we would gain 500 jobs from May to June,” Vleming said. “One hundred is kind of a weak showing.”

Vleming said he thinks employers remain reluctant to hire because they are skeptical of this economy.

Seitz said employers seem cautious when it comes to hiring, but they are starting to show a lot more interest in temporary employment and are starting to dip their toes in the employment pool to feel it out.
Varadian agreed.

“We’re seeing that toe dipping going on, but not people jumping in off the high dive,” Varadian said. “Employers are cautious, but curious.”

Abundis said she knows there are a lot of employers out there who are struggling. Some of them were business clients she lost because they had to downsize or close their doors. With limited resources and an inability to take some of the stress off of remaining employees, Abundis said it’s imperative that employers encourage workers.

“Your employees are the ones that make the business,” she said. “If they feel like they aren’t being taken care of, they will go somewhere else.”

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