For the jobs around 'Big D,' it's too few workers

As an example of a fast-food row, Gus Thomasson Road is as good as any. Its tenants include the expected names -- McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and others. But the strip also provides an example of an uncommon event -- the boom economy.

Yes, despite the recession elsewhere in the nation, jobs are still plentiful along fast-food row, as they are elsewhere in this Southwestern growth center. And when unemployment is low, the incidence of job switching is high -- as Ronald Hall knows all too well. As the assistant manager of Sonic, a drive-in that serves up foot-long chili dogs, Mr. Hall has watched his employees depart after average stays of one to two months.

The main reason for this turnover, he says, is the better pay to be found elsewhere. And it all adds up to difficulties for this bearded assistant manager, who recalls working 16- and 17-hour days when most of the crew quit a couple of months back. And for Sonic, it adds up to higher labor costs from having to train new workers.

To hang on to workers, Mr. Hall says, it would be necessary to "pay them more money." So far Sonic hasn't done that. But plenty of other employers have as the labor shortage here has become acute at times. And that's one reason the cost of living here has regularly outstripped the national average. (Another is soaring home costs, which have been pushed upward in part by the heavy demand of a growth market.)

Indeed, local inflation has topped the national average four five straight years. Last year it hit 16.1 percent, while the national average was 13.3 percent, the US Labor Department reported. Over the full five-year period, local inflation was a total of just under 5 percent higher than the US average. In the previous four years local inflation was 2.7 percent less than the nation's average.

But overall, the Dallas-Fort Worth area ranked fifth in the severity of inflation among 28 major metropolitan areas since 1967, ahead of such centers as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. (That doesn't mean that it costs more to live here, but that the cost of living is rising faster here than in such traditionally high-cost areas as New York.)

At the heart of this escalation is the region's rapid growth rate. It has put heavy pressure on the housing and labor markets to meet the demands of a modern-day boomtown. Unemployment ran a low 3.3 percent here in 1979, while the national rate was 5.8 percent.

And as a result of the tight labor market, the Southland Corporation, operators of the Seven-Eleven convenience- store chain, had to close several stores here on the 11 p.m.-to- 7 a.m. shift last fall. It did so because it simply couldn't find anyone to man them.

Earlier this year, though, Southland raised wages in this area by 8.5 percent for clerks and 13 percent for night managers and assistant managers. At least part of that increase was aimed at competing in the labor market, the company says.

Not everyone is having troubles, though. At a Long John Silver's seafood restaurant just down the street from Sonic, crew chief Joey McCutchen reports that high turnover is not a particular problem. Still, he notes that jobs are plentiful. "I could find a job in a day right now," he says.

That's not necessarily true for employers in search of labor. The Labor Department office here reports shortages of electronic technicians, computer personnel, and other scientific and technical workers. The department also notes that secretaries and other clerical workers are in demand. So does Kelly Services, a big supplier of temporary clerical and secretarial help.

"I would say there is a white-collar shortage, period," says Darlene Jones, recruiting manager of Kelly's regional office in Dallas. The area has experienced a heavy influx of office employers who have moved regional and national headquarters here. Mrs. Jones notes that executives are moving to Dallas, but they are not bringing their clerical workers with them. Many of these workers are married and can't move, she says.

Another observer of the labor shortage is James A. Byrd, for First International Bancshares, a holding company for 31 banks. "I don't have a hard figure," he says. "But I do hear . . . there are developing shortages in some of the high skills."

And Mr. Byrd notes a twist to the labor shortage here: television ads seeking to recruit workers for the Seattle- based Boeing Company. The labor shortage is "not being helped" by these ads, the economist says. He says they seek 1,500 workers from Texas.

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