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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

Region's employment outlook begins to brighten, experts say

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

AK Steel Corp. isn't taking any chances. Sensing that the economy is on the verge of a turn-around, the company last month began advertising for $10 an hour factory help at its plant in suburban Walbridge.

“There is a very slight glimmer of evidence on the horizon that the economy has bottomed out and may be heading back up,” explained Alan McCoy, a spokesman for the Middletown, Ohio, company. “If true, we want to have applications on file because it takes time to screen and train people.”

After a year of layoffs and grim plant-closing announcements in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, employment experts say there is evidence that the worst may be over. They disagree, however, on how quickly and how strongly the job market will come back.

“Nobody is going backwards,” said Jack Hollister, president of the nonprofit Employers' Association.

“People are telling me that they're a little surprised about how well the first part of the year is starting out. It's steady.”

At Toledo's Renhill Staffing Services, which specializes in finding workers for factories, warehouses, and offices, “things have really opened up,” said Jackie Barnes, vice president for business development.

“Many of our clients have been adding to their work forces because they have been running short and are experiencing additional needs.”

Temporary employees placed by Renhill are once again beginning to be offered permanent positions. “That tells us that the hiring freezes are being lifted,” Ms. Barnes added.

For sure, these aren't the $24-an-hour auto plant jobs that are so coveted by blue-collar workers. Annual wages tend to run in the high teens to low 20s, the Renhill executive conceded.

The employment situation for tool and die makers and other skilled trades workers continues to be difficult because of cuts at DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep assembly plant and factory closures in the region, Ms. Barnes said.

Still, the job openings seen by the staffing firm offer a strong indication that hiring will begin at higher levels of the companies as well, she added.

“The situation has stabilized, not that there isn't going to be more bad news,” said fellow staffing executive Bruce Rumpf.

Business plummeted 19 percent in 2001 at Mr. Rumpf's temporary employment agency, Job1USA, of Toledo.

The plunge has stopped, although the employment agency isn't yet seeing growth, he said.

The local economy, Mr. Rumpf predicted, will be up and down during the next six to nine months, but will begin to see steady growth toward the end of summer.

And, he noted, demand has remained high and even increased in some occupations.

There was a 43 percent jump last year in placement of security personnel - prompted in part by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Nurses, nurse's aides, and many other health-care workers also had no problem finding jobs.

Mercy Health Partners, which operates St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center and other Catholic-sponsored hospitals in the Toledo area, continues to offer sign-on bonuses for registered nurses.

Radiology and surgical technicians and medical professionals in a number of other areas “are in real demand,” added Emily Barry, a Mercy spokesman.

The outlook for newly minted college graduates is not as strong as it was during the roaring 1990s, but it isn't bleak, either.

“They're just not going to have as many offers as they had two to three years ago,” said Ellen Nagy director of career services at the University of Toledo.

“A student who had two or three offers then may have one now.”

More graduates are finding work at nonprofit agencies, social service agencies, and in government, Ms. Nagy added.

Employers aren't breaking down doors to sign up for job fairs at UT. “But nobody is backing out,” said Ms. Nagy. “We're hitting our targets. Because employers participate in a job fair doesn't mean they have openings. But employers are at least maintaining their contacts with colleges.”



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