Saturday, November 22, 2003

Economy on the mend, but hiring stalled here

By John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Branner Mark Watson, 40, of Bond Hill, looks through his contact cards as he searches for jobs at the Southwest Ohio Career Resource Center in Roselawn Wednesday.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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Branner Mark Watson is a big guy - 6 feet tall if he's an inch, built like an offensive lineman, with big shoulders and beefy hands.

But he seems to shrink as he tells how hard it is to find work in Greater Cincinnati today. He lost his job as a manufacturing manager with flavor maker Givaudan Corp. in Bond Hill in May, and has had hardly a nibble for a job since.

"I've had two interviews, and they went very well, but they went with other people," he said, his voice gone quiet, his big shoulders slumping.

Watson, 40, of Bond Hill, comes to the Ohio "one-stop" job center in Roselawn nearly every weekday, using their computers to scan job listings and e-mail resumes. Two years ago, headhunters were calling him with job offers, but now, with a wife and two boys, he said he's willing to stock shelves to help put food on the table, but no one will hire him.

"Either I'm overqualified, underqualified, or 'you won't stay here long because of your qualifications' or 'we don't really have a need for that right now'," he said. "It's very rough."

Watson is among those trapped in a Greater Cincinnati job market that seems to be at a standstill - not getting worse but not getting much better, despite improvement in the economy nationally. The hiring that is taking place is extremely selective, driven more by the need to replace workers who left than by economic growth.

Some 47,000 workers were unemployed in Greater Cincinnati in October, about 1,000 more than a year ago, according to jobs figures released Friday by the Ohio Labor Market Information Bureau.

Get a plan, now: Companies are interviewing now to hire in January, when new budgets kick in. Figure out what you want to do and what kind of company you want to work for, and "put the resume together in a way that reflects that thinking," said Lee Hoffheimer of Lee Hecht Harrison outplacement consultants.
Emphasize your value: Unsuccessful candidates "don't have the capability of selling themselves as someone who can help create value," said John Schlegel of Hamilton Fixture, a manufacturer in Hamilton.
Network. Most jobs are found through contacts. "Use people you know to introduce you to people you don't know," Hoffheimer said.
Work hard on your search, but not too hard: That's easier said than done, but if you spend too much time on the search, "you start to get that hungry look. You start to look desperate," Hoffheimer said. "You'll project better if you're not stressed."
The unemployment rate for the region was unchanged at 4.4 percent.

The total number of jobs for the 13-county area stood at 1,015,600 in October, down 11,000 since the same month in 2000. Manufacturing has lost 18,000 jobs over those three years.

Across Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, the number of jobs has risen in recent months.

But in all three states, there are fewer jobs today than there were a year ago.

Rough time for careers

The Southwest Ohio Career Resource Network in Reading has been busy with job seekers taking classes and using banks of computers to contact employers. "I think people are still able to find work," said Derek Jackson, who runs the center. "It's whether they're able to find careers."

There are lots of openings, for instance, manning the telephones at customer service centers. "Try convincing somebody who's been making $50,000 a year that now $12 an hour is on their radar screen," Jackson said.

Local employers say they see the economy improving and sales inching up. But in their push for efficiency, they're able to do more with less, so it might be some time before higher sales turn into more jobs.

In the meantime, they're hiring people mostly to replace workers who've left, and are being picky about whom they hire.

At Hamilton Fixture, which makes fixtures and display for retailers from Starbucks to Wal-Mart, an 8 percent increase in sales will translate into an increase in the work force of 2 percent to 3 percent next year, said CEO John Schlegel. The company has worked with consultants over the last few years to make operations more efficient. The watchwords are "lean thinking," Schlegel said, so hires are only made for specific jobs with specific skills.

"Every organization that's successful today is thinking lean. Margins aren't what they used to be and they never will be," he said from his office in Hamilton.

Like manufacturing, technology has been hard hit.

The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce estimates there are 3,000 to 5,000 high-tech workers unemployed in the region, about a two-year supply. Jobs were lost because of the end of Y2K work and the "dot-bomb" collapse, and they're slow to come back as companies export programming to places like India.

Lisa Crumb, 40, left her job as a project manager at GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale in August. She was confident she'd find work quickly because, she said, she's never had trouble getting a job in technology.

Until now, that is.

She's had a dozen interviews, but none has turned into a job. One employer had two positions, but hired others - the first time she'd been rejected for a job. "Being told they chose other candidates has been very hard for me," Crumb said.

The Delhi Township mother of two is getting anxious because her unemployment benefits run out in February.

Usually, the normal churn in the technology market creates openings. But workers are staying put. "People feel they're lucky to have a job," Crumb said.

Market tight

Still, there is some movement in the job market. Steven Browne, president of the Greater Cincinnati Human Resources Association, said his group's monthly meetings are full of people trying to network to find work.

"Three months ago, nobody was finding jobs," Browne said, but now, five to 10 every month are getting work.

But how real is that pickup in hiring? Lee Hoffheimer, senior vice president for Lee Hecht Harrison, an outplacement consultant in Cincinnati, said interviewing and hiring usually picks up at the end of the year. Budgets for the new year kick in, and managers rush to fill positions before their bosses change their minds.

Mary Pat Brennan of Mason, who lost her job last March as an account manager at Eastman Kodak, is looking for work in pharmaceutical sales. "Definitely I have seen, since August, a greater surge in companies looking for employees," she said. A lot of that is being driven by new budgets. "I've probably heard that four or five times in the last two weeks," she said.

That means the pickup might be a mirage. "We're seeing more interviews right now and more offers," Hoffheimer said. "We don't know if it's a seasonal pickup or a real pickup."

The job market "is still tight overall," said Barry Joffe, managing consultant at DBM Cincinnati, a human resources consulting firm. .

The most positive development in the local job market is that the air of depression has lifted, even in manufacturing, where the business slump and job losses have been deepest.

"Six months ago, everyone was in the doldrums," said Hamilton Fixture's Schlegel. Now, "people who've seen an uptick in their business are optimistic about the future, but they're not willing to pull the trigger (on adding workers). It's too hard to scale back."

Still, "the pace is slow," said Keith Baldwin, president of Baldwin & Associates, an executive search firm in Cincinnati. "We're seeing C-level people (CEOs, CFOs) talk about needs. ... The talk is bright, and of the talk, we're seeing a fourth to a third turn into assignments," meaning those companies are willing to pay Baldwin to find workers for them.

DBM Cincinnati's Joffe sees hiring getting better in 2004, but how much better is the question.

"There's a potential for marginal job growth in 2004, ... (but) it's fairly low." Where jobs in Greater Cincinnati grew 2.5 percent a year from 1994 through 1999, Joffe said he expects job growth in 2004 of about 1 percent.


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