News Column

Challenges for Young Workers Cover Broad Spectrum of Economy

April 17, 2012

Jane M. Von Bergen

young workers

Juan Lopez kept an eye on his son as he toddled on little legs at a small Spanish eatery around the corner from Lopez's house.

"Sometimes, I still feel like a kid and I haven't grown up," said Lopez, 23, "but when I look at my son, I know I have to keep it moving for him."

Lopez is finishing his final year as a union carpenter apprentice, but even at apprentice pay, work is scarce, Lopez said. He said he has gone from construction site to construction site. Sometimes he gets hired, but mostly not.

DayQuan Reid, 24, now works at McDonald's, partly because he can't get enough work from his father's construction business, where he has been a helper handling plumbing, roofing, and demolition. He'd rather earn his living from music, something related to his college degree in music theory, but that hasn't happened.

"My dad hasn't had actual work for a long time," said Reid, of North Philadelphia.

Construction has traditionally been a job available to the young and the strong, but despite some recent growth, the economy has hammered construction employment.

In 2005, unemployment nationally in construction was 7.6 percent. In 2011, one in six were out of work, an improvement over 2010, when one in five were unemployed. Two million construction jobs have disappeared since the start of the recession.

That's the national picture. Locally, it's equally grim. In 2005, 103,460 people were employed regionally in construction, including 18,100 carpenters. By 2011, the total declined to 81,860, or nearly 21 percent, with the number of carpenters falling to 13,920.

Those statistics come from the U.S. Labor Department. Other numbers add nuance.

Here's one: In 2005, Toll Bros. Inc., one of the nation's largest builders of luxury homes, sold 8,769 houses, collectively worth $5.8 billion.

Six years later, in 2011, the company delivered 2,611 "units," as they are called, sold for $1.48 billion. Assuming the same amount of workers per home, that's just under a third of the number needed six years ago.

Tight credit is still hurting construction, the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group, reported in January. And "the impacts of the stimulus are fading fast," said the group's economist, Kenneth Simonson. His best-case forecast is an increase of 250,000 construction jobs in 2012, but that could easily slip to a deficit of 3,000, depending on the housing market and public spending.

One of six brothers, Lopez has two who want to join him in construction. "I want to be in the union," Lopez said. "I want to get a college degree and work behind the scenes as a contractor."

Like others his age, Reid refuses to give up hope, relying on faith and a reputation for hard work. "You go through struggles in life," said Reid, father of two, who also promotes fashion events.

"My main question to anyone who complains is: What can you do to make your life better? I've been through enough in my life. I try to keep going with my head high. I always praise God first and complain next -- except I never complain."

OFFICE WORK

Before she landed her current job as a receptionist/administrative assistant at an insurance company in Conshohocken, Pa. Allison Cawley worked as a recruiter.

Her assignment?

Recruit receptionists, clerks, administrative assistants, and secretaries - the kind of jobs once available to bright young women with a high school diploma.

Not anymore.

"Most jobs, everyone wants a college degree," said Cawley, 26, herself a college graduate, who has firsthand experience with what Drexel labor economist Paul Harrington calls mal-employment.

"Even for jobs at $10 to $12 an hour," she said, "they want college degrees. It seems that the college degree is the minimum now.

"We had to eliminate some people my mom's age from the running because they have 20 years of experience with one company, but no degree, and (employers) want that degree," she said.

"Why? I still haven't figured it out. Some of these jobs are strictly data-entry, and you could pay someone right out of high school to do it," said Cawley, who graduated in 2008 from Eastern University.

"I guess if someone graduates with a good (grade point average), you know they showed up. You know they turned in their stuff. You know they are reliable," she said.

When the recession began in 2007, 19.5 million people were employed in office positions. Last year, the number dropped to 17.7 million.

In 2005 in the Philadelphia region, there were 509,890 employed as secretaries, clerks, receptionists, and administrative assistants. By 2011, that number had fallen to 475,350.

U.S. Labor Department statistics get pretty specific - there are fewer file clerks, fewer switchboard operators, fewer executive secretaries, fewer bill collectors, even fewer secretaries for lawyers.

"Instead of administrative assistants typing letters, lawyers are typing their own letters," said Ken Dubin, owner of the Dubin Group in Bala Cynwyd, where Cawley worked as a recruiter.

"I walk into an office park and go to the reception area, and it says, 'Please ring the bell.' Or 'Please dial by extension,' " he said.

Companies "are asking for more from the employees," said Bill Emerson, president of the Emerson Personnel Group, in Cherry Hill. His company handles temporary and full-time office staffing.

"Where you used to have three or four payroll clerks, maybe there are only two. You don't necessarily need four," he said, "because of technology," as computer software takes over payroll and bookkeeping functions.

Meanwhile, some office work can be handled just as easily in Asia as in Camden County. That's what more than 35 office workers at Swets Information Services' U.S. headquarters in Runnemede learned in 2009, when subscription-fulfillment services shifted to Singapore, federal documents show.

While some college graduates might be frustrated in a receptionist's job, Cawley isn't. Her pay and benefits are decent, and she sees opportunity to advance.

"It's a perfect job for me."

MANUFACTURING

Gritty warehouses and manufacturing plants, each in its own squat building in the strip along State Street in Northeast Philadelphia - Joshua Berko's been to them all looking for work.

"I can't even find a job flipping burgers," said Berko, 23, who earned a GED after dropping out of high school. In his wallet, he carries a beat-up copy of his forklift operator's certificate.

Until he was laid off eight months ago, he earned $14 an hour as an entry-level machine operator, mixing chemicals at a union factory in upstate Pennsylvania.

"Now, I get up, sit on the stoop, and read the newspaper, or go . . . apply for jobs," he said. "I'd like to get up, get my coffee, and go to work."

For generations, a hardworking person, mostly men, with a high school diploma, or less, could count on a blue-collar job. But decades of factory closings ended those opportunities - until recently.

These days, factory jobs, especially the highly skilled machinist positions, are going begging - some because they are too technical for someone without a post-high-school education, some because manufacturing has a bad reputation, and some because the factories aren't near public transit.

"We've talked to companies who can't run a third shift because they can't find the people," said Anthony Girifalco, vice president of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a group that works with manufacturers.

"The irony is that we continue to send our young folks to four-year institutions to find themselves, at $40,000 or $50,000 a year," he said, "and they come out with a certain set of skills that aren't in demand in the market place."

Yes, hiring has picked up, but the increases since January 2010 have done little to erase the 5.4 million jobs lost nationally since 2000 - jobs gone through automation and the movement of work to Mexico, Turkey, China, and Malaysia.

In 1990, when Berko was the age of his infant son, 348,200 people were employed in manufacturing in the region, with 68,500 of those jobs in Philadelphia.

Now, Philadelphia factories employ 24,800, a subset of the region's 186,510. In 2008, Chrysler shut the doors of its sprawling plant in Newark, Del., putting 2,100 out of work, and last year, more than 800 refinery workers in Marcus Hook and Trainer lost jobs.

Since 2007, area factory jobs have gone abroad:

When Kulicke & Soffa moved its work, Bud Tyler, vice president at the EF Precision Group, a machining company in Willow Grove, felt the pain. Machining and repair for Kulicke was 30 percent of sales, supporting 115 employees. Now, there are 85.

"Kulicke & Soffa used to keep 100 machine shops like mine busy," Tyler said. "Now there are just a few left."

And while he'd like to hire a machinist, he can't afford the five years to train someone like Berko.

In Philadelphia, Berko relies on unemployment. When working, he had a car and an apartment, where he lived with his girlfriend and son.

Now, they're with her mother, and he's sleeping on a mattress in the basement of his brother's house. Berko sold the car to pay bills, which means he can't get to third-shift jobs in the suburbs.

"I'm hoping I can get a break, and someone will hire me," he said. "I'd like to have a house, a car, and some money to take the family out to eat once in a while.

TEACHING

By the time she finishes graduate school, she'll be close to $60,000 in debt.

The lesson is in the numbers, but it's one Janet Cress already knows.

In Pennsylvania, school districts shed 14,159 positions last year, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators estimated, based on its August survey.

Unable to get a teaching job, Cress works as a special-education classroom aide. "I have a four-year degree, I have a teaching-certificate," said Cress, 27. "I'm months away from a master's degree, and I'm basically in the same position as in my first job out of college."

Even at $76 a day, Cress loves her job. But her situation illustrates what is happening to what used to be a reliable profession for college graduates, especially for those like Cress, who started college in 2003 when there were teacher shortages.

To a certain extent, employment in education is cyclical. Demographics affect enrollment, which affects hiring, but demographics also play a role in retirement. Forecasters predicted baby boomers would retire in droves, leaving massive vacancies.

Cress sees the opposite in her district, Wallingford-Swarthmore in Delaware County, where retirement creates her best chance for a teaching job. "I think some teachers are afraid to retire. They are afraid for their financial future."

Meanwhile, public funding for education has been cut, as states and districts cope with reduced tax revenue.When school started in 2008, 8.1 million people were working as public school employees across the nation.

By September 2011, the number had dropped by 240,000 to just below 7.9 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

If others in her age group also put off having children, "it is possible we could see a decrease in the school-age population" worsening, he said, the situation for Cress and her jobless peers.

But nothing, so far, has diminished Cress' enthusiasm for what she sees as a calling. "I love the kids I work with," she said. "You put your time in, you do a good job, and good things will come to you. That's what I have to believe."

HUMAN RESOURCES

Kimberly Larned, 23, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.., changes price tags at her local ShopRite supermarket.

An honors student in human resources at Rowan University, she now manages to make her $260 monthly college-loan payment from the $300 she earns weekly.

While at college, Larned studied HR and loved it. "I always thought I'd be good at management," she said. "But then I saw how HR and management work together."

If there's any job function that acts as a bellwether of the economy, it's human resources. When times get tough, companies keep the human-resources people on long enough to handle layoffs. Fewer employees mean fewer benefits to administer, fewer training classes to run, fewer workplace crises to resolve.

When times improve, the first to be hired are temporary recruiters.

That's happening now, but not enough to benefit Larned, at least not yet.

Young human-resources graduates come out of college "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," said Scott Rosen, owner of the Rosen Group, a Cherry Hill recruiting agency specializing in human-resources job placement.

They are eager to make a difference in the lives of employees, he said, and to participate in business human-capital strategies, even if it means starting out processing health-benefit claims or other employment paperwork.

The U.S. Labor Department predicts growth, 217,200 jobs in the field by 2020. But that's eight years away, and in the meantime, the nature of the job is changing, Rosen said.

"The human-resource generalist trainee position doesn't exist today," he said. "Human-resource graduates are waiting on tables. Hopefully, they have a relative with a business who can hire them."

The Internet has led to other changes. "Jobs that used to be high-touch are now high-tech," Rosen said. "Now, they have a call center. They don't need to have a trained HR person to read off a screen."

Even as the more mundane aspects of the human-resources graduate's job are being handled by clerks, computers, or call centers either here or abroad, senior managers are picking up some of the other more complicated responsibilities that might have been handled by a more junior person, Rosen said.

"The HR generalist is going away," agreed Kate Nelson, an assistant professor in human resources at Temple University's Fox School of Business.

Young people now need to begin as specialists. "Then they grow into something," she said.

She is hearing of a new HR job, "talent sourcing," that seems aligned with the sensibilities of the tech-savvy "millennial generation."

"A talent sourcer," Nelson explained, "uses the Internet and social media to find (job) candidates. Then, recruiters take over to develop the relationship."



Source: (c) 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.


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