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Local shipyards not hiring, but out-of-state employers are recruiting

Coast job market remains strong despite layoff concerns

PASCAGOULA — The relief to the local economy that came after workers who were laid off at Friede Goldman Halter (FGH) were hired back will probably be only temporary.

After being laid off for two weeks, Friede Goldman Offshore workers were hired back to finish work on the Ocean Rig ASA drilling rigs. But with the rigs nearing completion, most of the workers are expected to be laid off again in the near future.

Chris Cunningham, vice president of investor relations for FGH, said that more than 1,000 workers were laid off. On March 12th, the company started calling workers back to complete work on the drilling rigs.

“It is too early to say how many will be back,” Cunningham said. “I think the intention is to hire back all of them.”

Cunningham said the first drilling rig is scheduled for sea trials this month. Sea trials and commissioning are expected to last 30 to 45 days. The second rig was initially scheduled to be completed in June. There is no more work lined up for the 1,000-plus workers when the two rigs are completed.

“At the present time we don’t have more work planned, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more work down the line,” Cunningham said.

A number of subcontractors also were laid off when work on the rigs was idled. Cunningham said he didn’t know if the subcontractors would be hired back. But the agreement between FGH and Ocean Rig to complete the two rigs was good news to subcontractors, some of whom had filed liens in court to assure payment.

It isn’t known how many of the FGH workers live in Jackson County as many workers live in Mobile County, or other Mississippi counties such as Harrison, George and Greene counties.

Margaret Dethloff, placement manager at the Mississippi Employment Service office, Pascagoula, said other shipyards in the area currently aren’t hiring, but employers from elsewhere in the country have been recruiting people affected by the layoffs. One is a contractor from Louisiana who does shutdown work nationwide, providing assistance when plants shut down for maintenance. An employer from Kentucky is recruiting river deck hands. And the employment service has received faxes from employers from California to Texas notifying workers of openings.

Dethloff said that while having work available elsewhere for these workers is positive, it takes skilled workers away from the Coast. Jackson County Chamber of Commerce presidentCEO Terry Carter says that is a major concern.

“Once you lose those skills out of your labor market, it becomes difficult and costly to absorb those laborers back into the market,” Carter said. “These kind of workers are in big demand. There are shipbuilding operations in Mobile County that will pick up a number of these people.”

Carter agreed the impact of layoffs to Jackson County is difficult to gauge without knowing how many FGH workers actually live in Jackson County. He said the effect of any future layoffs will be spread out to Mobile County, Ala., George County, Greene County and, to a lesser extent, Harrison and Hancock counties.

Carter says the retail sector of the economy would probably be the first affected by future layoffs at FGH.

“What you are going to see there, first of all, is that those families who were employed by Friede Goldman won’t be spending disposable household income on items such as automobiles,” Carter said. “I think perhaps the last tier of retail to be affected is grocery stores. People have to eat and find a way to pay rent. But everything between necessity and luxury items will go by the wayside. This will be felt in the local economy, but I cannot quantify the degree of the effect at this time.”

The layoff in late February followed a period with some of the lowest employment rates ever seen in the state and in Jackson County. In December Jackson County’s unemployment rate was 3.5%. That was even lower than the state’s December average of 4.3%, the lowest rate seen in 30 years. Overall Jackson County’s unemployment rate for 2000 was 5.2%.

Jim True, placement supervisor for the Mississippi Employment Service office in Gulfport, said Harrison County hasn’t been affected by layoffs to the extent of Jackson County.

“The labor market is still tight as far as employers looking for employees,” True said. “It is still a good market for a job seeker. The latest unemployment rate for December in Harrison County was 2.9% unemployment. It was looking really good then.”

True said there is still heavy demand for service sector jobs, and that is going to increase as soon as the Coast enters the tourism season. He said the Coast continues to see people moving here from all over the country in order to take jobs here.

“We’re seeing them come for jobs at the casino resorts as well as construction work and other areas,” True said. “A lot of people have heard this is a good place to live and raise a family. They like the Coast — the climate and the atmosphere.”

True’s advice for employers having difficulties finding enough employees is to advertise every way they can.

“Don’t just use one source to secure employees,” he said. “Spread the word. A lot of employers are going through the Internet now using Internet job banks like www.monster.com, for example.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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