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State's labor market begins to tighten up

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

Jennifer Herrod didn't spend too much time searching the want-ads before acquiring her job at Heilig-Meyers Furniture.

The Clarksburg resident now works as a credit manager at the store. "The job was in the paper. I filled out the application, and I was working in about two weeks," she said.

For many job seekers, examples such as this seem to be indicative of a low unemployment rate that is enabling them to find jobs quicker and easier than ever before.

According to national statistics, the unemployment rate is at its lowest in 30 years.

Some companies across the nation are turning to ex-cons to fill positions, while others are offering incentives like sponsoring race car hobbies or paying bills, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

The situation, however, isn't as extreme yet in West Virginia, market experts say.

"We are experiencing a labor market tightening but not as much as other areas," said George Hammond, director of the West Virginia Economic Outlook Project with the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The national unemployment rate for 1999 was 4.2 percent, Hammond said, while in West Virginia, the unemployment rate for 1999 was 6.6 percent.

The statistics are based on persons who are not currently working, but who are actively searching for a job, Hammond said.

Part of the reason West Virginia's rate is higher than the national average is because most of the state is not part of the big urban labor market, Hammond said.

Some counties in the Eastern Panhandle that have access to the large urban market have unemployment rates that have dipped below 3 percent, Hammond said.

"Rural areas have higher unemployment rates," he said. "People are working a bit harder to fill positions, but it isn't as bad in West Virginia (as) in other places."

Hammond attributes the low unemployment rate to strong job growth and an overall healthy economy.

"But the region has certainly been affected by the coal mining layoffs," Hammond said. "Those jobs are an important share of the state's economy for the North Central region.

"We've had a decline in the mining industry, but we've had a growth in the service industry," said Joe Baldwin, manager of the Clarksburg Job Service.

"We have experienced some manufacturing growth as well," he said.

The unemployment rate for Harrison County for February 2000 was 6.8 percent, Baldwin said.

The low unemployment rates have resulted in companies using non-traditional means to find employees, Baldwin said.

"They are using business and job fairs," he said.

Baldwin also has seen more employers using the job service that hadn't used the resource previously.

Some of the area's largest employers agree that while finding employees for the less technical jobs isn't too difficult, finding highly skilled workers in specialized areas is hard.

"We've had problems filling a few positions like in information systems," said Carol DuBray, human resources manager at Pratt & Whitney.

"It depends on the type of position," said Brenda McCartney, personnel manager at the Bridgeport Wal-Mart. "Positions in upper management are difficult to fill," she said.

Companies such as Bombardier Aerospace and the West Virginia Air Center have noticed the lack of highly trained people applying for jobs in technical fields.

"In general in the aviation industry we are starting to feel a shortage of qualified aircraft mechanics," said Elizabeth Harwood, manager of human resources at Bombardier.

"At peak times, we have to supplement in-house employees with contract employees," she said. "The market is dwindling and with the low unemployment rate, people have more career choices."

The company has begun working locally to promote and recruit for the industry, she said.

The medical industry is also straining to find employees in certain areas, said Tim Allen, vice president for human resources at United Hospital Center.

"We have no problems generally filling jobs in the non-medical service areas," Allen said. Primarily our problems are in the skilled medical professions such as ultrasound.

"Whenever we have openings for those types of positions, it is hard to find people," he said.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1443.

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