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Construction jobs will fuel employment sector

Fast economic rebound expected on Coast, in South Miss.

The first week after Hurricane Katrina, 600,000 people across the state couldn’t go to work because of electrical outages and other problems.

“Now that things are settled down and power is restored, we think 300,000 are still out of jobs because of Katrina,” said Jim Lott, deputy executive director, of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES). “That is an educated guess. We have no way to determine the exact number right now. The federal government is working with us to do a complete poll of people who have left and are in shelters around the country. A lot of people went north to Jackson and Memphis. We don’t know how many. It may be as few as 20,000 who have left the state.”

South Mississippi from the Coast to Hattiesburg is a major economic engine for the state, accounting for 460,000 of the state’s 1.3 million jobs. With so many people in the southern part of the state out of work, the short-term impacts are significant, causing a major ripple effect across the economy.

Lott predicts the job engine of South Mississippi will roar back.

“Over the next few months we are going to have a job boom, and we know that within six months to a year we will have more jobs on the Coast than were lost,” Lott said. “A lot of those will be construction jobs. We could easily see 100,000 people employed in the construction industry.”

‘Chances to help’

It has been estimated that approximately 38% of housing units on the Coast, 65,100 out of the Coast’s 171,000, have been destroyed. Another 38,000 sustained major damage.

Dr. Marianne Hill, senior economist for the Institutions of Higher Learning, said she was surprised to learn that after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 in Dade County, Florida, there were significant job gains. While 1992 employment dropped .5%, in 1993 employment increased by 3.4%. It went up another 1.5% in 1994.

Dade County lost nearly 28,000 housing units as a result of Hurricane Andrew.

A large number of companies from Mississippi and many other states have contacted MDES with job offers for people who have lost their jobs.

“We have had dozens of companies ranging from insurance companies to law firms who have offered to hire workers who have lost their jobs because of Katrina,” Lott said. “We have a lot of chances to help people fill jobs. Our agency has WIN Job Centers all across the state, and it our primarily purpose to match people and jobs. We want to encourage companies to contact WIN Job Centers and list jobs there. We will get them qualified candidates instantly.”

To find the location of the nearest WIN Job Center, go to the Web site www.mdes.ms.gov and click on “Find a WIN Job Center.”

Record numbers

As of September 22, MDES had 51,544 people file claims for unemployment.

Les Range, director of the MDES Workforce Operations Division, said that compared to 11,000 claims in September 2004 and the highest September total the state had ever seen before, 14,000 in 1995. The highest for any month was 38,000 in January 1991.

“So far this month we have 51,544 claims, which is about five times the normal activity,” Range said. “And the month is not over yet.”

Despite the large numbers of jobless, on the Coast “Help Wanted” signs have sprouted up widely since the storm. Many restaurants, especially in fast-food, are hiring, and a large number of retail and service businesses are also looking for workers.

Some of the demand is coming because employees’ cars flooded, and they lack transportation. Some have lost homes or apartments, and moved away. Lack of childcare can be an issue as some child care centers were destroyed. And minimum wage workers may be taking higher paying jobs in disaster cleanup and recovery.

“We have not heard specifically from employers about why they are hiring, but we are receiving jobs openings daily from people looking for workers,” Range said. “I was in Ocean Springs last week and saw people trying to recruit for cleanup jobs for $9 per hour.”

Range added that a lot of the jobs listed at WIN Job Centers are in the Natchez and Central Mississippi areas. The job needs have shifted to the central part of the state because there has been so much displacement on the Coast. Many openings are being posted on America’s Job Bank Web site, www.ajb.org.

Crossing the line

Some Coast jobs have also shifted east to Mobile. The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce held a Job Fair at the convention center that attracted 132 companies.

“Because the majority of Mobile businesses were spared catastrophic damage, we began to look at what role we could play helping victims of Hurricane Katrina,” said Susan Rak-Blanchard, a senior communications specialist with the Mobile Chamber. “It was an easy match to put employers looking for jobs with evacuees looking for employees. For example, the Outback Steakhouse in Mobile hired employees from the closed Outback in Gulfport because they wanted them to have jobs.”

Blanchard said it was a natural for Mobile to want to help neighboring Mississippi because it makes sense to have a regional approach to economic development.

“The Mobile Area Chamber has worked on huge economic development projects like Boeing with folks in Jackson County,” Blanchard said. “That regional approach has been a part of our thinking for a long time. The job market goes beyond the Mobile city limits. So this is a natural thing for us to do.”

Information about the job openings has been distributed at shelters, insurance agencies and churches where evacuees are likely to be found. The Mobile Chamber’s Web site for job listings is http://www.mobilechamber.com/jobs.html.

Blanchard said they had a steady stream of applicants at the job fair and collected applications and résumés for approximately 850 people.

“We had candidates dressed in t-shirts and jeans, up to suits and heels,” she said. “The business representatives I talked to were grateful for the opportunity to be there and said there were many people from Louisiana and Mississippi there. A number of job applicants I saw while I was there came out happy and grateful. One gentleman told me he filled out 20 applications. Some were hired on the spot. We are planning a follow-up survey with the businesses there to get a number of how many were or will be hired.”

A number of disaster recovery contractors are setting up shop in Mobile while working on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Since all hotels on the Coast that are still open have been booked for months by public and private disaster relief organizations, Mobile hotels are getting a lot of overflow traffic.

Job fairs have also been held by most major casino companies on the Coast. The casinos are trying to place displaced workers at jobs at their properties elsewhere in the country until the Coast casinos can be rebuilt.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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