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No end in sight for new worker demand

Back-to-school slump not seen by Coast employers

It’s October and there’s no sign of the fall employment slump. That’s right, there are still lots of jobs going begging. Teachers and kids – both high school and college – are back in school, but employment continues to be high.

“Typically, during the summer a lot of jobs are filled, there aren’t a lot of openings. Then the fall comes in and jobs are vacated again,” confirmed Roxanne Towles, career placement manager at the Jefferson Davis campus of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

“It actually has done a reverse,” said Christy Strawbridge, owner of the Gulfport and Pascagoula offices of Interim Personnel. “Usually we do see a slump from August to the first of October with applicants, but we have not stopped. We are actually seeing more people; we are actually able now to have more applicants coming in and more phone calls coming in. It’s been steady since last year. We haven’t stopped since last December.”

Towles believes that it is mostly university students going to school away from home that impact the local job situation. “I think that’s what happens, traditionally, is a lot of students come in from a university, they’re coming home, they’re filling a lot of the jobs that are here during the summer, and we do see a difference in the number of job openings. The summer time is traditionally a slower time for us as far as job placement, then it picks up again in September and on through the holiday season. So there’s a marked difference. When you’ve worked in employment for several years, you begin to see the transitional stages.”

As a matter of fact, Towles said that the employment situation is so good on the Coast, that businesses are resorting to greater benefits in order to attract even part-time workers like students. “The majority of the students that come through are looking for part time with benefits. We’re seeing now that, because of the employment situation on the Coast, there are a lot of jobs open but not a lot of people to fill them, and employers are really looking for people in all different areas. Employers are now beginning to add more benefits to the pot. Insurance, quite a few employers are doing tuition reimbursement, scholarship-type things. Anything they can do to have incentives to have people to work for them.”

This is good news for the students, who often want as much work as they can get. However, the jobs must accommodate their school schedule. “We have quite a few who valet park at the casinos, because they can work in the evenings, the salary’s a little higher, and it’s a non-traditional type of job,” Towles said. “We have had quite a few students that will come through who either work there or have worked there in the past. As with any other positions with the casinos, the student has to be sure that the flexibility is going to be there for their school schedule. They have to be on a set schedule and a set shift and sometimes changes with the casinos.”

But many students no longer have to settle for unskilled labor positions because of their familiarity with computers. Strawbridge said that this means that she can place more students into better jobs.

“In this day and age, we’re working with students that are highly computer literate. I started in this business 20 years ago and I used to love college students because they were such good workers. But what we’re seeing now is that they’re extremely computer literate, so we’re able to send them out on a much higher level than entry-level clerk.”

Judy Platt, manager of Kelly Services,said that her office did see an impact when schools began classes again this fall. “Of course it has an impact; it always does. In the summertime, we have a lot more people to pull from than when school starts, because a lot of them do go back.”

However, although she agreed with Strawbridge that office/clerical jobs are easily filled with students these days, Platt also saw an impact on the number of manufacturing jobs she could fill. “I would say both manufacturing and office/clerical are affected equally; there are students who don’t mind working in the manufacturing environment during the summertime, because it does give them extra money. These days, I can’t say one overrides the other, because there’s such a critical need for workers. I think it’s equally divided between entry-level positions in manufacturing and the hotel industry and things like that for entry-level people, but also office/clerical.”

Robert Pond, Labor Finders area manager for Biloxi and Gulfport, said that the beginning of the school year didn’t affect them at all, in part because most of the positions that company fills are in the construction field. Although college students will take construction jobs, Pond said that the fall semester apparently didn’t impact his job pool significantly.

There probably aren’t too many jobs students won’t take. “We have a lot of retail, because of the new stores opening in the area constantly, a lot in tourism, which includes restaurants, food, that type of thing, as well as entertainment,” Towles said. “We also have a lot of students who are looking for employment in their career field. That includes paralegal, it includes a lot of office/clerical, so they’re looking for things that will help them develop their resume and experience along the way. And we work in conjunction with our cooperative education coordinator for that. The banks will hire a lot of the business department students, because it does allow them to be in a business setting and obtain a lot of information and experience prior to graduation.”

In addition to the traditional fall slump, there are other cycles in student employment, Towles said. “There is a lot of hiring for the Christmas season. Then around December-January there is a huge slump in employment. People are not typically looking for employment at that point; they’re concerned with other things. Then it picks up again in February and rides high for us, because we are in a college setting and placement is important for our graduates, so it really hits a high between February and May.”

Teachers seeking summer employment should be included in this equation, but are somewhat harder to track. “I probably saw less than 10% of my applicant base that were teachers. I guess they’re exhausted from the school year,” Strawbridge said.

However, the demand for workers, student or otherwise, shows no signs of slowing. “This year it’s been different from any other year we’ve had because of the unemployment situation,” reported Towles. “Most everybody’s working. There are a lot of positions that are available. I thought that this summer would be time for me to kind of regroup and get some things together, some workshops that I’ve been doing, but we’ve really been hopping this summer. There are a lot of employers really looking for people.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Kim M. Campbell at kim@ametro.net or mbj@msbusiness.com.

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