Help Wanted: Convicts Welcome

As unemployment hits 28-year low in US, employers scramble to fill their job openings.

Jane Kimball, a job headhunter in Keene, N.H., is still chuckling about the conversation she had recently with a client desperate to fill a job opening on a construction crew.

"Well, I have someone with all the qualifications," said Kimball, "but he is a convicted felon."

"As long as he didn't shoot anybody, send him over."

Ms. Kimball uses the anecdote to spotlight the eagerness with which employers are pursuing employees in every salary and age range, in every corner of the country. With the stock market soaring, and US unemployment at a 28-year low, job seekers are in the driver's seat.

"Employers are having to dream up every way imaginable to lure workers to their companies and keep them," says Jeff Thredgold, an economist in Salt Lake City, where 30 pages of want ads fill the newspapers daily.

And as summer approaches, that means more openings for seasonal positions at travel destinations, including far higher wages and benefits, than there are workers to fill them. It might also mean your favorite hotel or movie theater may be short of the help needed to function smoothly.

"People in this town are offering $9 an hour with benefits and having to close because they can't find workers," says Judith Jester, spokeswoman for the Delaware Restaurant Association in Rehoboth Beach. "It's a little scary."

Employment firms report the same story in every region of America, despite some isolated pockets that include the rural South and large inner cities. Labor analysts rattle off a host of positive indicators that only start with the announcement Friday that the country's 28-year low unemployment is now hovering at 4.3 percent.

Other evidence includes:

* The lowest self-employment rate in 20 years (meaning companies have pulled workers back).

* The lowest number in 30 years of those who say they are working part time out of economic necessity.

* The lowest proportion since 1978 of those who were recently laid off from their permanent jobs and couldn't find other work.

Add those that have been lured to work from retirement, welfare, and school, and the result is the highest percentage of employed working-age Americans in history - 64 percent.

"By almost any measure, the US labor market is as tight as it has ever been," says Mark Zandy, financial analyst for Regional Financial Associates in Westchester, Pa. A countrywide survey by the Conference Board, a business trade organization for large corporations, showed that 45 percent of respondents say finding a job today has never been easier. That's the highest proportion since the poll began.

Employers' problems

But while that scenario may look good for job seekers, the flip side is often frustration for companies who are looking to hire. Creative alternatives often mean hiring foreign workers, legal and not. In Rehoboth Beach, for instance, a summer program has been set up to import Irish workers to fill the gaps in hotel and restaurant help. In Memphis, Tenn., local authorities recently shut down a group of construction sites that were putting up houses because they were using nearly 100 illegal Mexican immigrants. Within a week, the construction site was back in business using another work force of illegals.

"The use of Mexican illegals in such huge numbers here is indicative that there is just not enough local labor around," says David Kemme, professor of economics at the University of Memphis, noting a citywide unemployment rate of just 3 percent.

In the Midwest, the lack of labor is causing a slowdown as many industries are unable to fill their orders. And from Boston to Silicon Valley high-tech companies have petitioned Congress to raise the number of visas for foreign workers trained in computers (see foreign workers, Page 4).

Besides the need to look high, low, and to other countries, the tight job market is forcing employers to allow more employees to work at home, job share, and design other ways to keep their hours. The number of people working at home is soaring, up to 3.6 million from 1.9 million in 1990.

"More businesses here are working hard to create flex-time arrangements and excusing workers for all kinds of reasons they didn't used to," says Joan Warner, executive director of the Downey, Calif., Chamber of Commerce.

Not all good jobs

Some national economists complain that although the overall unemployment figures are good, they belie the fact that many of the available jobs do not pay enough to support a family. Nor are they the jobs that people would like to establish careers in.

"If you look at the job-growth figures, the biggest expansions are health aids, cashiers, and janitors," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, an economist at the Cornell University School of Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y. "You can't support a family or go to college with the wages from these jobs."

Besides all-out blitzes to find workers that include special mailings, offers of start-up and stay-on bonuses, and finder's bonuses for those willing to bring friends into the workplace, more and more companies are signing on for job fairs. In addition, they are posting fliers in churches and community centers, buying ads in newspapers and on radio, and are working with government agencies to find low-income people looking for work.

"In Arizona, we are taking 42,000 people off the welfare rolls by the end of 1998," says Milt Ericksen, spokesman for the Arizona Hotel and Motel Association. "We work with the agencies that train these people to direct them into our industry."

Despite their efforts, Phoenix officials say the labor shortage is the most acute they've ever experienced. An estimated 1 in 10 positions is vacant in tourism, the state's second-largest industry. To fill the void, many here and in other tourist regions are tapping an increasingly willing age group: seniors.

"This is the untapped market in resort and retirement areas," says Ms. Jester. "If you lean on them, seniors often are delighted to help out."

One Los Angeleno who will fill the ticket this summer is single retiree Greta Farley. Reflecting a trend that is common among both young and old this summer, Ms. Farley will work two hotel jobs through June and July, then take August off. "I'm going to grin and bear the double-time," says Farley. "Then I'm going to fly somewhere far away and spend it."

* Beverly Medlyn contributed to this report from Phoenix.

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