Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jobs remain available in handful of sectors

By Naomi Snyder • THE TENNESSEAN • March 1, 2009 Horace Grant was surprised when his employer called him into the office in late January and told him his job had been cut. After all, Grant, 29, was an information technology professional in a growing division of a major Nashville religious publishing company. "It was definitely a wake-up call,'' he said. "I want to get somewhere where the job will be more secure.'' Job security has been elusive lately, to say the least, as almost all sectors have been hit in a recession that has sent ripples out to broad sectors of the economy. About 93,000 jobs were lost in Tennessee during the 12 months through January, a more dismal figure than many economists had projected. Some sectors that once were left unscathed have now been scraped, with some hospital workers and computer programmers being shown the door by employers. The federal government will send billions of dollars to Tennessee in a bid to stave off job losses via the national stimulus plan, but that money will directly benefit only a few sectors such as construction, renewable energy, education and health care. And education and health care were sectors the state felt had the most potential for job growth in the years ahead anyway. "The overwhelming trend is jobs are being shed,'' said Matthew Murray, a professor of economics at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. "We've seen no turnaround in the economy to date." Economists expect that unemployment will get worse before it gets better and that job growth won't happen in Tennessee until later this year or in 2010. In the meantime, people who work in the construction industry, some segments of health care and education are better poised to keep their jobs than others, career experts say. In those sectors and a few others, employers are still filling jobs. Here are examples of brighter spots amid the gloomy employment headlines. Medical careers show gains Health care: The biggest category seeing job gains in the past year has been health care, which added 8,800 jobs statewide in the 12 months ending in January. However, even that sector was hit with 1,900 job losses from December to January, a particularly brutal time for employees across the state as the Tennessee jobless rate rose to 8.6 percent. "I don't even know that we've had a bump in the road,'' said Robert Jordan, the vice president of human resources for Guardian Home Care in Brentwood, a home health-care agency planning to add 30 to 40 employees this year, a 30 percent growth rate. Although the Obama administration may cut Medicare funding, so far the company has benefited from an increasing number of patients and bills paid for by the federal government. "More and more seniors are being added to the (Medicare) rolls every day,'' Jordan said. Medical diagnosis is fueling a burst in hiring at Aegis Sciences Corp. in Nashville, which plans to add 75 to 100 employees this year to its base of about 150 workers. The company is a major drug-testing firm for professional and collegiate sports and recently got a contract to handle NASCAR. But the fastest-growing niche for the company is pain management, in which doctors assess what sort of other pain medications their patients are taking to guard against drug abuse or misuse. Companies that send diabetes equipment in the mail also are hiring hundreds of people locally, mostly for sales and call center jobs, including AmMed Direct and Diabetes Care Club. Teaching: Public schools, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, added 700 jobs during the 12 months through January in Tennessee. Education probably will remain one of the highest-growth industries in the state between now and 2016, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The Williamson Countyschool district plans to add 56 employees this fall, for instance. Government: Overall in the state, local governments added about 3,700 jobs during the last year ending in January. The Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Census Bureau are hiring. Metro Nashville government has a hiring freeze, but it's filling critical safety positions such as police and 911 dispatchers, said Dorothy Berry, human resources director. Despite layoffs in 2008 and possibly more to come this year, the city of Nashville has maintained an employment level of roughly 10,730 workers, similar to the numbers a year ago. Energy jobs: Economists expect utility workers, technicians and scientists to get a boost from increased federal funding for renewable energy, research and upgrades to the electrical system. Shoals Technologies Group plans to add 300 to 400 jobs in Portland this year making components for solar energy manufacturers. Construction work: Highway and infrastructure should be among the biggest beneficiaries of massive federal spending designed to jump-start the economy. Adding jobs in those sectors could help pick up some of the slack from the slowdown in housing, which affects construction jobs and other related fields. But the big picture is that even massive federal spending won't be able to stop job losses in the private sector, Murray said. He has revised his forecast and now expects unemployment to top 10 percent in Tennessee this year. January unemployment in the state climbed one percentage point to 8.6 percent, a more than 20-year high. "There's going to be a seismic shift away from industrial companies, whether it be auto companies or heavy equipment, and away from the financial sector,'' said Mac Johnston, chief investment officer with Pinnacle Financial Partners. "The economy continues to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs nationally per month. Until the unemployment rate stabilizes and home prices stabilize, I would not expect the job market to be at an optimum state."

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