Working: Jobless, for a long time
Prospective employers on lookout for specific skills
By L.M. SIXEL HOUSTON CHRONICLE
May 6, 2009, 11:15PM
As the economic situation deteriorates, Houstonians are finding it increasingly harder to find new jobs.
The number of local residents collecting unemployment benefits for 15 weeks and longer skyrocketed 144 percent between March 2008 and March 2009, according to data tallied by the Texas Workforce Commission.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Barton Smith, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston. “We’ve got two problems: People are losing jobs, and it’s happening in an environment where it’s extremely difficult to find a new job.”
The surge in the number of long-term unemployed Houstonians is partly a reflection of how fast people have been losing their jobs.
In prior slowdowns, such as during the dot-com bust, job cuts were spread out more, said Joel Wagher, labor market analyst for Workforce Solutions, which manages employment services, education and training for the area.
But Houston employers, who until recently were creating more jobs than they were cutting, sliced 14,400 positions from their payrolls in March compared with one year earlier. That represents a 0.6 percent year-over-year decline.
Losses in thousands
During the next two years, Smith is predicting the local area will lose about 60,000 jobs, with the bulk of the losses this year.
That surge, in turn, has caused the unemployment ranks to swell. In January, February and March, the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits jumped to record levels with the exception of post-Hurricane Ike, Wagher said.
In the next few months, that increase in claims means even more people will likely be collecting unemployment benefits 15 weeks and longer, he said.
‘Right now it’s tough’
Steve Crawford knows that all too well after losing his job as a business analyst with HP in 2006.
“Right now it’s tough,” he said, because of the flood of people coming onto the unemployment rolls. It’s not just blue-collar workers, either, he said, but many people like him who are looking for professional positions.
Employers are also less willing to hire folks if they don’t have a specific skill, he said. They want employees who are ready to go on day one instead of promising workers they can train.
“I don’t see a whole lot of want ads for people who are flexible, can think on their feet and can learn new things quickly,” he said. “Instead, it’s, ‘Can you do AutoCAD? Can you do GIS systems?’ ”
At the moment, Crawford is working part time for the Institute for Regional Forecasting to make ends meet and to keep his résumé up to date.
At the same time, he’s searching for a job that combines research, writing and merging data systems.
It’s not an unusual story, said Smith, who recalled a friend in the 1980s who lost his job as president of an oil company. It took him seven years to find a similar position, he said.
Oil price a factor
Michelle Peavy, owner and CEO of the recruiting firm Rimi & Co., with offices in Houston and Calgary, said she started noticing in January that job seekers had been out of work for longer periods.
It’s the oil and gas folks who are having the most trouble because the price of oil is so low, Peavy said. That includes oil and gas field manufacturing, oil field services and engineering construction.
Exploration and production companies are still hiring, but they want experience in the Gulf of Mexico and the Permian Basin, she said.
With the rough economy, it’s more important than ever to remember the essential job-hunting skill: networking.
You have to continually build relationships, she said, “so when the recession hits, you aren’t in an ‘Oh my God moment.’ ”