An uphill climb

Published 11:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2010

As the job market shows modest signs of improvement, a large number of applicants are still vying for openings.

“We’re seeing an upswing in available jobs,” said Stacy Edland, a placement specialist with Minnesota Workforce Development in Austin. “It’s nothing drastic, but it’s hopeful. There are definitely some openings out there we haven’t seen in a while.”

However, Edland had a message for people looking for employment: You’re not the only one applying.

“The competition for those open jobs is still high,” Edland said. “As we work with people, we’re still telling them, you have to really put on your game face. You have to put your best foot forward.”

Melissa Huntley has been looking for a job for about 10 months since she lost her job in dietary aid at Adams Health Care Center.

Huntley is taking Edland’s class at Austin’s Workforce Center to find job openings, learn interview skills and write a strong resume.

Huntley, 23, said she found jobs quicker in the past.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Huntley said. “Then, you could almost walk in anywhere, and they would be calling you within a couple days. Now, I have to keep bugging them in hopes that they’ll let me know what’s going on.”

Along with calling potential employers to check on a job, she’ll also stop at the office to see the status of a job application.

While Huntley is looking for a job at a nursing home and plans to earn her certified nursing degree, she said she’s currently trying to find any job to pay off student loans.

Huntley said she’s learned a lot from classes at the Workforce Center. For example, she said she’s learned that only a fraction of job openings are posted, so you need to dig to find the majority of openings.

Upswing

The job market in the Austin area didn’t experience as sharp of declines as many other regions in the state and country, but Mower County’s unemployment rate did increase. In November, the unemployment rate in Mower County was 5.3 percent, compared to 4.5 percent in November of 2008 and 3.6 percent in November of 2007, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

However, unemployment numbers in Mower County and the state have dropped since last spring, as Edland said the job market has shown signs of improvement.

Unemployment numbers in Minnesota peaked in March and April of 2009. Mower County’s unemployment rate peaked at 7.4 percent in March. The state unemployment rate — currently 7 percent — was 8.9 percent in March. Southeast Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in November, down from 8.5 percent in March.

One positive sign for job growth is that some manufacturing jobs are now available, Edland said. Businesses like Akkerman Inc. and Austin Packaging Co. recently hired some new employees, she said.

Other areas, like health care, have remained steady, but there are still few jobs available in retail and other fields, Edland said. Winter is traditionally a slow hiring season, so Edland said any winter job growth is a positive sign.

Patience

While there are positives in the job market, a high number of people are competing for openings, Edland said.

Edland said the competitiveness is the toughest part of the current job market. More than 300 people applied for one position recently at an Albert Lea company, she said.

“I’ve never worked in a job market like this where the job market has been so tight and so competitive,” Edland said.

Patience is important in a highly competitive job market, as it often takes a long time for people to find a job, Edland said.

“We’re definitely seeing people unemployed for longer than we’ve ever seen before,” Edland said. “Be in it for the long haul because it could take some time, so try not to get too discouraged.”

Many of the people in Workforce Center’s classes are currently unemployed, many because of layoffs.

Dan Gatlin was laid off in November of 2008 from a Walser Mitsubishi dealership in the Twin Cities. Gatlin, 41, moved to Duluth looking for work, and he later moved to Austin.

Gatlin said he’s submitted applications to a number of companies, but he’s had difficulty even getting interviews. Every morning, he stops by the Workforce Center and uses the computers to look for openings.

“I’ve been unemployed before, but never for more than a couple weeks at a time,” Gatlin said.

“It wasn’t hard to get a job then,” he added. “You just can’t get it anymore.”

Gatlin interviewed at Hormel Foods Corp., but he wasn’t called back. He’s currently applying for part-time janitor positions. He’s also looking for jobs in the Twin Cities. Had he known he’d still be looking for a job over a year later, Gatlin said he probably could have found part-time work right after he was laid off.

Skills

According to Tricia Whalen, director of placement and graduate services at Riverland Community College, enrollment at schools like Riverland often increases when many people are looking for jobs.

According to Whalen, Riverland’s 2009 fall enrollment increased by 18 percent from fall of 2008. Part of that is because displaced workers often seek additional skills to improve their chances of landing a job, she said.

Riverland offers a class on employment search skills to help students write a resume and build interview skills. Students can also meet with Whalen for help finding employment.

“What we’re really seeing is it’s just taking them longer to find positions,” Whalen said.

Whalen said more students are seeking one-on-one help in her office, and Riverland alumni are seeking help, too.

Galen Thompson, 39, is completing law enforcement degrees at Riverland, and he said Whalen’s help has been beneficial to update his job searching skills.

“Tricia has been a godsend in helping with resumes and preparing for interviews,” he said.

Whalen tells her students to be creative in their job search. For example, Whalen said she tells auto service students to expand their job search to include jobs in retail working for a dealership.

Whalen said students need to be open to relocate and gain experience, especially when there’s a high number of people on the job market.

Whalen said it’s important for students to write a resume that highlights their skills and experience like internship and first-hand training.

Thompson is looking for a job in law enforcement. He’s planning to earn his bachelor’s degree online, so he’ll have the option to work in probation.

“I know that I’m prepared — that the school’s prepared me to go out into the job market,” he said.

Thompson is now aiming to have a job by spring. Thompson wants to stay in the Austin area, and that may prolong his job search, he said. But Thompson isn’t discouraged, he sees finding a job as a challenge.

“Don’t quit. Keep going,” he said. “Don’t let anyone get you down. There’s work out there. It’s just a matter of finding the right job for that person.”