More Jobs Open to Women

Strong economy and tight labor market are eroding employer gender preferences. Fed meets Wednesday to ponder wage pressures.

The sawmill at Kingfield Wood Products has always been something of a male bastion, a place where nearly a generation of burly men turned Northern Maine hardwoods into finely crafted boxes.

But, on Friday, the Kingfield, Maine company broke with tradition - and hired its first woman to help manufacture drumsticks from logs. The decision was made without fanfare. "We didn't have any qualified men apply for the job," says Bill Keoskie, the president of the company.

At Kingfield and around the country, the tight labor market is quietly creating new opportunities for women in jobs normally held by men. Increasingly, women are welcomed as welders, mechanics, tool-and-die makers, and even NBA referees.

"Economic prosperity forces employers to put their prejudices aside," says New York economist Christopher Low.

Just how strapped businesses are for workers was quantified Friday by a Department of Labor report showing that the nation's unemployment rate in October fell from 4.9 percent to 4.7 percent, a 24-year low. Employers added 284,000 jobs to their payrolls, a very strong showing for the economy. And, many of those new workers were women, which drove the unemployment rate for adult females down to 4 percent compared with 4.4 percent in September.

Normally, such a low national unemployment rate would cause the Federal Reserve to tighten interest rates when the central bank meets Wednesday. Fed chairman Alan Greenspan will no doubt have noted that hourly wages jumped six cents per hour to $12.41.

But economists say that the roiling markets are likely to make the Fed wary of taking action - for now. The Dow Jones Industrial Average seesawed through the week, closing down 102 points (1.3 percent) on Friday, but up 139 points for the week as a whole.

"As soon as the markets calm down the Fed will raise rates," says Mr. Low, an economist with HSBC Securities Inc., a New York investment bank.

Marathon economy

As the unemployment rate indicates, the US economy continues to drive ahead. David Wyss, an economist at DRI-McGraw Hill in Lexington, Mass., estimates the economy is now operating at close to a 3 percent growth rate. If it keeps up, he predicts the unemployment rate could hit 4.5 percent early next year.

This pace of economic activity - continuous for almost seven year - is keeping employers busy trying to find workers.

Outside Atlanta stores, "the sales banners flapping in the wind are smaller than the hiring banners," says Donald Ratajczak, an economist with the Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Service.

Many of those jobs are now being filled by women, who are increasingly returning to the work force. Today, 71 percent of the US male population have jobs compared with 57 percent of the female population. However, the number of women working is rising, particularly as more states require welfare recipients to enter the job market. "The change is that women are now permanently entering the work force," says Mr. Wyss.

Downhill progress

This shift is apparent at Sugar Loaf USA, the resort in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, where 38 to 40 percent of the 700-person work force is female. Almost half the management positions are held by women. "Many of these are traditionally male-oriented jobs," says John Diller, the general manager.

For example,the resort's transportation and parking manager is female as is the safety coordinator, health-club manager, food and beverage director and property manager. With more women returning to school, this trend is likely to continue.

But, to ensure it does, the company has now formed a women's task force that focuses on such areas as how to get more women in management and how to attract more women to skiing.

A job, but what kind?

Of course, even a tight a job market does not guarantee a woman a good job. Women are still overrepresented in low-paying jobs with little job security and low benefits. In 1993, there were twice as many men in high-paying blue-collar jobs as women. Instead, most women are employed in so-called "pink collar" jobs such as secretaries.

This is not the first time a significant number of women have joined the work force during a tight labor market. In World War II, women ran the factories (remember Rosie the Riveter?). Then, during the boom years of the 1950s, the female unemployment rate dropped to 2.4 percent. The current rate is the lowest since the early 1970s.

But, in some places, the job market is getting so tight that even jobs traditionally held by women can't be filled.

In Rapid City, S.D., an unemployment rate of 1.9 percent has forced the Radisson Hotel to explore new pools of workers to provide maid service. Karim Merali, the general manager, is now hiring teams of people with physical disabilities.

"One person does the glasswork, two make the beds, one does the bathrooms, and a final person vacuums as they leave the room. I know it takes five people to clean the rooms, but when they see me, they run up to me and hug me," says Mr. Merali.

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