Friday, January 30, 2009

50,000 are jobless in Nashville area

Employers have their pick of applicants as state sees worst job market since 1986 By Chas Sisk and Wendy Lee • THE TENNESSEAN • January 30, 2009 A year ago, Buckley left Memphis for a job welding and bolting steel components for the Terrazzo condominium in the Gulch. After a July layoff, Buckley, 51, found himself out of a job, out of his apartment and out of luck. "I'm homeless because I can't work," Buckley said Thursday at a Nashville job fair for military veterans. The labor market has tightened across Tennessee, as all 95 of the state's counties posted a rise in unemployment in December, according to data released Thursday by the state. The Nashville-Murfreesboro area reported 6.5 percent unemployment, up from a 4.2 percent rate a year ago. Some rural counties in Middle Tennessee were much worse off — with rates as high as 11.3 percent in Smith County. In the Nashville metropolitan area, the ranks of the unemployed surged past 50,000 people, and thousands more are thought to be underemployed as the state wrestles with its worst job market since 1986. Many companies have slowed investment in their operations, and people fortunate enough to have jobs have held onto them more firmly, leaving fewer employment opportunities for those out of work. It's in this environment that Buckley has been trying to find work. He has sent résumés to 50 employers, trolled online job listings, and even flagged down truck drivers hoping for tips on openings at their companies. Each time, the answer has been the same: Maybe they'll hire, if things improve later in 2009. "That's not just one company," Buckley said. "That's almost every company I went to." The tight jobs market has made it hard for people to advance their careers. Adrian Edsall, 29, earns $15,000 a year teaching classes on health and safety as a part-time instructor at Middle Tennessee State University. He longs for higher pay to provide "a better lifestyle" for his 4-year-old son. Like Buckley, Edsall searched for a better job at Thursday's career fair. He has applied for 300 positions, including jobs such as a customer service representative, since being medically discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 2007. He has been turned down for several positions on the grounds that he is over-qualified. He jokes that he will soon list only his high school diploma on his résumé. "I've not found a better job than the one I have," Edsall said. Employers at the job fair at LP Field seemed to have their pick of applicants. URS Corp., a U.S. military vendor, said it would hire about 50 percent fewer people than a year ago for its Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Alabama, in part because fewer people are leaving the facility, said Rhonda Ford, a human resources specialist. "Because of the economy, we haven't lost anybody," Ford said, adding that she sees more white-collar job applicants these days. Meanwhile, others are considering renewals or first-time hitches in the military amid the slower civilian job market. The Tennessee Army National Guard has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent increase from a year ago in people expressing interest in joining, said Sgt. 1st Class Julius Santini. He described it as the biggest surge since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "When people are losing their jobs, they are looking for stability," Santini said. Rural counties worse Nationally, on Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department said the number of people continuing to receive unemployment benefits reached a seasonally adjusted 4.78 million for the week ending Jan. 17 — the highest level on records that go back to 1967. As a proportion of the work force, the latest total is the highest since August 1983.Companies across a variety of industries have been slashing their payrolls by the thousands. Starbucks Corp., Eastman Kodak and Allstate Corp. became the latest major employers to announce big job cuts — 7,000 at Starbucks, 3,500 to 4,500 at Kodak, and 1,000 at Allstate. "It seems like we've gotten through the financial crisis. Now we're dealing with global synchronized recession," said Brian Battle, vice president of trading at Performance Trust Capital Partners in Chicago. In Middle Tennessee, even as jobs become harder to find in urban areas, they are even scarcer in the state's rural areas. Thirty-six counties now have an unemployment rate higher than 10 percent, including Macon and Smith counties. Hardest hit has been Perry County, 90 miles southwest of Nashville. It has been reeling since the auto parts maker Fisher & Co. moved to Mexico in September. In December, Perry County's unemployment rate topped 20 percent, and many more are under-employed, said John Carroll, the county's mayor. Workers at another major auto parts plant have been working on reduced shifts. "We need more employers in the area," Carroll said. "We're trying to attract, but nobody is having a lot of success. A lot of people are not turning loose of the money and investing." Chas Sisk can be reached at 615-259-8283 or Wendy Lee can be reached at 615-259-8092 or

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