R5 Job seekers, college grads face difficult challenges in 2009

Waiting for the release of the Labor Department’s quarterly national unemployment figures has become a nervous undertaking to say the least. The April numbers recorded 539,000 jobs lost in that capricious month alone, taking the unemployment rate up to 8.9 percent nationally and earning the country the dubious distinction of posting results that haven’t been seen since 1984. But as job seekers’ blood pressures spiked at the news, some analysts and industry watchers administered an antidote by noting they’d expected worse numbers and even hinted this could be the bottom of the crisis. That musing sent the Dow soaring, albeit briefly, showing by example that any scrap of relatively good news is great news.

Experts in the fields of human resources and those heading personnel agencies in Westchester are somewhat divided on that thinking. No one denies that many of the gainfully employed have fallen into the deep furrows of unemployment that this recession continues to create. Yet many are seeing a long battle through the next two quarters. Still, those taking the cautiously positive stance say they have numbers to prove it.

“December and January were dismal across the board but the forecast for the region two months ago appeared to be positive,” noted Karen Eidelman, White Plains branch manager of Manpower, Inc., the international employment services company, celebrating 60 years in business in 2009. Eidelman’s “weathering the storm” attitude is bolstered by the fact that Manpower is a fixture in the industry. Its White Plains office has seen 30 years of ups and downs in a constantly changing job market. “We’re agreeing with that forecast because we saw business pick up in April, making us feel that things are moving in the right direction.”

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While 67 percent of the 31,800 employers polled for Manpower’s Employer Outlook Survey (a quarterly poll of businesses and employers across the country) did not expect to hire during the second quarter (April-June), 15 percent expected to increase their staffing levels. Another 14 percent expected to reduce staffing somewhat and four percent were undecided as to what their payroll plans would be for that time period, according to the report released in March. Second quarter numbers and third quarter predictions were scheduled to be released in June. The report indicated that each of the four U.S. regions surveyed expects weaker employment outlooks compared to last quarter and last year, according to the seasonally adjusted data. Hiring in the Northeast is expected to be the strongest, while employers in the Midwest and West are less optimistic.

Employers in the South, who reported the strongest hiring in the first quarter of this year, anticipate the weakest hiring pace during the second quarter of 2009.

“Temp staffers find better scenarios in downturns because firms need the work accomplished but cannot afford, especially in this market, to pay benefits or large permanent salaries,” Eidelman said, explaining her cautious optimism. “Firms can ‘try and buy’ their employees this way, often putting temps into permanent positions. But to be truthful, many of those great hires that have lost their jobs are happy to enter the temp pool now. It’s an opportunity for them to work rather than sit at home on forced furloughs or layoffs.”

Smaller companies are still hiring, according to Eidelman, but “it’s more industrial than corporate and we are seeing a boost in the mortgage sector now.”

Others still hiring, according to the quarterly report, include construction, transportation and utilities, information, leisure and hospitality, and government. Hiring is near a standstill (or companies have plans to reduce staff) in non-durable goods manufacturing, financial activities areas and professional and business services. While wholesale and retail areas were expected to remain unchanged, some staffing agencies noted that warehouse jobs, some retail, insurance, healthcare and document scanning and shredding all continued to have some hiring activity into the second quarter of this year.

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There are people out there overqualified for
jobs that are taking anything.

Concorde Personnel, Inc.’s Bill Bernstein said that clients are more interested in target hiring now, meaning job openings for specific skill sets. The vice president and partner of the 23-year old White Plains full-service staffing organization specializing in recruitment, screening and placement, said no matter what the climate, “a good recruiter will find the right answer for a client’s needs.” He added that budgets are obviously restrictive now and employees respond by reinventing themselves as best they can with the tools they have in order to stay in the workforce.

“Accounting, mortgage banking, healthcare, energy, media companies–these are the sectors that are hiring,” Bernstein noted. “But again, it is tactical hiring. The job needs are more specific and the candidates have to have exacting skills to fill that need.”

How are candidates and firms changing to meet this barebones market?

“Everyone’s got a story,” said Eidelman, noting that the usual unwritten rule of not hiring someone who’s been out of work for months doesn’t hold true these days because of the general economic circumstances. “But due to the amount of competition and availability, you still have to be on top of your skills,” she said.

There’s concern too, over employment agencies themselves going out of business, but the veterans of the field, such as Bevlin Personnel, Inc. believe the storm will pass and it will still be functioning well. A permanent placement agency serving the Westchester and Fairfield county
markets since 1981, Bevlin specializes in administrative, bookkeeping, computers, customer service, accounting and finance, and college grad placement. President Elissa Ferretti, noting that some small agencies have actually closed their doors due to a lack of job orders, said she’s concerned about the next two quarters.

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“We’re looking at a slow summer by nature, she explained. “But I feel for the college grads. They’ll soon be out there joining the ranks of the experienced workers. This is about the highest number of available candidates we’ve had in our 27-year history and I do not see this tight market loosening up before 2010. My advice to the grads would be to think about more education. This is a perfect time to hone more skills, become more knowledgeable for the time when we do get back to into a better economy.”

Greg Chartier, a human resources consultant based in Maryknoll, NY, said the impressive amount of executive talent out there for the choosing is an employer’s dream, but frustrating too, because choosing the right person is still a challenge.

“Westchester’s executive pool has often been immune to the worst of economic downturns because of the proximity of Manhattan’s job market,” Chartier said. “Now there’s a different problem. How do you look into all this talent and not have it sway you? There are people out there overqualified for jobs that are taking anything. So employers have to ask, ‘Am I hiring the right person for this job? Will they stay when things get better?’ Training someone who’s going to jump at the first sign of economic life can cause even more production and personnel problems for
a company.”

Chartier, who serves as chairman of the Business Council of Westchester’s Human Resources Council, continued that agencies are dealing with other difficulties. Swamped with candidates, they also see the other side of things. Many of the perfect execs for a certain job are already working and hanging on to that position for dear life.

“No one wants to jump now, he added. “For 20 years we were hiring too fast and firing too slow. Now it’s just the opposite so if you have a job, you’re not looking to throw yourself into the unknown.”

Judy Chriss agrees. The president and owner of Chriss Careers in Tarrytown also noted that companies are holding on to their top stars and jettisoning the not so stellar employees.

“Would you let go of your best producers?” she asked candidly on the phone from her office recently. “The unemployment pool is also filled
with those people companies feel they can afford to lose.”

One trend that seems to be appearing is that companies wanting to cut someone off the payroll for other reasons than financially-driven layoffs, such as poor performance or inability to grasp the job requirements, find that now is the time to do it, and you can always blame the economy if firing makes you uncomfortable.

Chriss noted there are still jobs out there and that her agency had “a decent month” in April.

“While that doesn’t add up to a decent quarter, it is still pretty good,” she added, “Every (company) job that comes in seeking a candidate gets placed. I don’t think companies have a set plan in handling this economy. I think they are behaving on a moment-to-moment basis. I’m doing more networking than before and finding that the job that originally paid $75,000 is now paying $60,000 to $65,000 while still expecting the same $75,000 caliber candidate.”

Those seeking work may find they need to reinvent themselves before returning, similar to the situations with the dot.com bust and the savings and loan crisis.

“Those jobs simply disappeared,” Chartier said. “People became teachers, consultants, financial advisors. They cobbled together what knowledge they had in many areas and worked in a holding pattern until the dust cleared and the market steadied. Many of them saw they had to make real changes in their lifestyles as well as their careers and the same thing is happening now.

Chartier’s vision grows a little darker as he sees the months progress, predicting that the traditionally quiet summer will spill over into an even bigger employee glut come the autumn.

“Westchester hasn’t seen the worst of this yet,” he cautioned. “We still have to get through another two quarters before I think we’ll see any serious uplift in this economy and the job market.”

Despite an ever-changing forecast, the pool of Westchester talent and experience is unquestionably overflowing. Firms willing and able to hire are getting a personnel roster that makes the Yankees starting lineup look like minor leaguers. Both executives and other potential employees continue to come up with new and innovative ways to stay afloat, and companies who are willing or able to stretch now will have a dream team workforce when the economy stabilizes and production starts humming again.

Photo by Andy Scheiderich

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