Like many small businessmen, Hwan "Ray" Oh soared on the bubble of Orange County's go-go economy.
A Korean immigrant who found his first job in California scrubbing toilets, Oh built a business as a successful contractor, deploying up to ten crews a day to paint, drywall and carpet offices from Anaheim to Irvine.
At its peak, his Garden Grove firm, Quality Construction & Development, raked in as much as $300,000 in monthly revenue. "I never had to beg for jobs," he recalls.
These days, Oh can be found in line outside John Wayne Airport. At age 58, he is driving a Yellow Cab, hoping for enough fares to support his wife and college-age daughters.
"It is so embarrassing," he says. "I thought I had the American dream."
The Great Recession, which took down Oh's company and the 30 men who worked for him, drove Orange County's jobless rate up to 9.9 percent by 2010. Today, local unemployment has dipped to 6.5 percent--a notch below the national level of 7.3 percent.
But statistics can be misleading. The unemployment rate only counts working-age adults who say they are actively seeking jobs. And many, given the sluggish pace of the recovery and uncounted rejections, have simply given up looking.
Sluggish job market
While some baby boomers have retired early, the age bulge doesn't explain the steep drop in the nation's labor force participation, to 63.2 percent in August, the lowest in 35 years.
What does explain it: companies are not hiring back workers as fast as they did after earlier recessions. Orange County has about 94,000 fewer payroll jobs than it did in July 2006 when it reached 1.52 million.
The other day, Oh drove past a Home Depot, and noticed one of his former full-time laborers, a skilled tradesman, standing outside, hoping to pick up a day's work. "That hurt me a lot," Oh says. "He worked for me for 13 years."
Oh's situation isn't unusual. A salient characteristic of the recovery: many of the new jobs have come in low-paying industries. Better-paying manufacturing employment remains far below pre-recession levels, while restaurant, retail, home health care and tourism-related jobs--such as taxi driver--account for a growing slice of the economy. Many new positions are part-time.
According to the California Budget Project, the earnings of the state's high wage workers -- at the 80th percentile of earnings-- have returned to their 2006 level. The inflation-adjusted pay for the bottom fifth of workers has declined 6 percent since 2006.
As for the construction business, housing is starting to rebound, "but commercial--not so much," Oh said. "Bigger companies may be doing better, but small ones still have a hard time."
Boom to bust
Oh is wiry, with short silver hair and a military posture that echoes his long-ago stint in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division. He dresses like the businessman he once was, with a tie and a collared shirt. And, despite his heavily-accented English, engages volubly with customers.
Looking back, Oh explains, the recession hit him at the worst time. Beginning in 2008, "Business parks started getting vacancies," he recalls. "Tenants moved out and no one moved in, so no need for improvement. I started going around to property managers, but jobs went down, down."
When his contracting business was thriving, he invested the profits in seeding three other companies: a dental lab, which he eventually sold; a satellite subscription firm for Korean TV, which lost money after an associate cheated him; and an ice-making machine venture, which went belly-up.
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