Job Seekers Should Look to Pockets of Good News Amid Weak May Job Numbers

By Kyle Stock

After two big gains in March and April, employers took a step back from hiring in May -- way back.

Skittish employers were even more hesitant to hire in May as the private sector added only 83,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate rose slightly to 9.1%., according to the jobs report from the Labor Department this morning. The growth lagged the expectations of economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires who had called for an increase of 160,000 jobs.

"The economy is sort of bouncing around at stalled speed," said Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "Consumers remain hobbled. They can't spend ahead of their income, which may seem obvious, but in the previous decade, that's exactly what they were doing."

Dye said the tsunami in Japan, tornadoes in the Midwest and high oil prices have had a dampening effect on the job market in recent months. The labor force participation rate, the percent of the population that is working or trying to work, is dropping among both women and men, as frustrated job seekers give up the hunt.

Unemployed candidates should try to align their skills with industries and sectors that are relative bright spots in the national labor market, said Dye. An electrician laid off from a homebuilding company, for instance, might be wise to look for a position with a hospital or elsewhere in the health care industry, which added 17,000 positions in May.

Moving to a region with a booming industry is another strategy. Job Service North Dakota, a state with a 3.3% unemployment rate, has about 16,000 open jobs on its Web site, according to Phil Davis, head of the department's office in Bismarck. As the state taps into a major oil find, job seekers have flocked from all over the country.

"We actually have people putting up tents in the city park," Davis said. "If you are a truck-driver with a clean driving record, you are like a big piece of a gold nugget around here."

The boom has also driven demand for jobs peripheral to the oil and energy industry. Day-care providers, for example, are hot commodities and gas-station clerks are making $12 an hour in some areas, Davis said.

Hiring Nudge

Elsewhere in the country employers remain hesitant to add full-time employees. Economists point to longer workweeks, higher productivity and a surge in part-time and self-employed workers as evidence that demand for goods and services has increased, but companies are not growing headcount in step.

There are a number of regional initiatives, however, designed to nudge companies into hiring.

California is offering employers "positive recruitment," in which state officials prescreen employees and set up rounds of interviews at their workforce centers. All the hiring managers have to do is show up and ask some questions, according to Carolyn Anderson, who oversees a dozen Los Angeles-area centers as a deputy division chief in the state Employment Development Dept. The unemployment rate in California is 11.9%.

Meanwhile, North Carolina has a new program called Opportunity NC, which places unemployed people in six-week training programs. The state pays participants $100 a week plus unemployment benefits. The employers in turn do not pay the workers, but often sign them on full-time at the end of the trial period.

"We're trying to be as inventive as possible," said David Clegg, deputy chair of the North Carolina Employment Security Commission. "As far as participating employers, you've got everything from high-tech to insurance to veterinary offices; it's pretty much a soup to nuts." The unemployment rate in North Carolina is 9.7%.

Early last year, Texas rolled out a similar program called "Back to Work," in which it gives employers up to $2,000 per employee to hire and train workers for a four-month period. The workers earn up to $15 an hour, at least until the four-month period is up

"Clearly, Texas is working," said Tom Pauken, chair of the Texas Workforce Commission.

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