Jobless recovery also tough on employers

At last count, the unemployment rate in Whatcom County was hovering at approximately 8 percent. As residents continue searching for...

By Isaac Bonnell

More than two years have passed since the start of this recession and many people are waiting to hear a different “R” word: recovery.

Unemployment is slowly coming down and some industries are posting job gains, but most experts believe this will be a “jobless recovery” — a term that is as depressing as it is confusing.

But for the average American, “recovery” means a steady paycheck and confidence in the market, not just numbers on a page, said Jim Vleming, a regional labor economist for Washington state.

“I’m not convinced it’s a recovery yet,” Vleming said. “If it doesn’t bring some jobs with it, is it actually a recovery?”

At last count, 8.3 percent of residents in Whatcom County were looking for work. While their job search continues, things aren’t getting any easier for businesses. Consumers still aren’t spending much and the slow housing market continues to be a major obstacle for the economic recovery.

For Ronald Jepson, who owns his own engineering and land surveying firm in Bellingham, so much depends on the comeback of private development. When the housing market collapsed in 2008, it wasn’t just builders who were affected, but all the industries that supported development from start to finish: architects, engineers, surveyors, lumber mills, electricians and real estate agents.

“There’s a lot of unemployed engineers right now,” Jepson said. “I get resumes from engineers and surveyors all the time from people who had been with companies for 10 years or more. The market is full of very qualified people, but there’s nothing to put them to work on.”

Jepson and his 15 employees have survived thus far by expanding their reach from Bellingham to Olympia and bidding on as many public projects as they can. Public projects are becoming increasingly competitive, though, and Jepson said he can’t survive on public projects alone. But without private development, there is no other choice.

“In about a month I’ll be able to tell you if it’s working,” he said.

Jepson has been in the industry for 42 years and has weathered all the ups and downs along the way, but this recession is particularly “sinister,” he said. It’s like a lingering fog that is keeping everyone from moving forward. Even with the summer construction season under way, there is little sign that building activity will be enough to keep people busy.

Temp workers in demand

Though the housing and development market isn’t showing signs of serious improvement in the near future, many local manufacturers are experiencing a slight uptick in business. Since manufacturing is often the first industry to feel the effects of a recession, an increase in business could be a sign that the economy is on its way to recovery.

After two slow years, though, many companies are hesitant to ramp production back up and hire full-time employees. So they are looking to temporary employees to fill in while the company waits to see if the good times are going to stay around, said Stacey Snodgrass, office manager at Express Employment.

“Coming out of this economy, companies aren’t sure where things will go, so they are switching to staffing agencies,” Snodgrass said.

Currently, Express Employment finds work for more than 200 people each week, and that number is growing as local manufacturers seek more employees.

While temporary employment may not be the steady job most unemployed workers are looking for, more than half of the temporary jobs through Express Employment turn into permanent positions, Snodgrass said.

“For a lot of people, once they show their work ethic and stay on for a while, they will get hired on full-time,” she said. “Companies are looking for really good employees, especially during tough times.”

Staffing agencies are also being used for recruitment and hiring for mid- to upper-level management positions, said Kiera Berghof, district manager at the staffing agency Kelly Services.

Many companies simply do not have the time or the resources to sift through hundreds of applications that come in for a single position. So they look to staffing agencies to narrow the field of qualified candidates and help with picking the right person, Berghof said.

Slim pickings

For many businesses, the worst part of the recession seems to be over. But the future is still murky: consumers aren’t yet confident enough in their jobs to spend much and employers are not confident enough in the market to start hiring more than a few part-time employees here and there.

Historically, June is a time of job growth as the construction season starts, tourism increases with the sunny weather and students get seasonal jobs. That trend hasn’t materialized for the two previous summers, and economists are waiting to see if it will happen this year.

“It’s slim pickings out there,” said Vleming, the state economist. “We need to get legs on this recovery, because we rarely add jobs during the winter.”

No matter what happens, though, Vleming is certain of one thing: The road to recovery will not be easy or predictable.

Editor’s Note: This story is part two in a three-part series on unemployment in Whatcom County by reporters Ryan Wynne and Isaac Bonnell.

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