These cities wonder: What jobs crisis?

Sacramento BeeAugust 28, 2011 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There really are jobs out there. Just not enough of them.

It's true: America's bleak economic landscape includes pockets of prosperity. Factories are expanding in the Sacramento area, the Rust Belt and elsewhere. The tech sector is humming, from Silicon Valley to North Carolina.

Las Vegas casinos are hiring again. High energy prices are creating work in obvious places like Oklahoma and Texas, as well as the hinterlands of North Dakota, an oil-rich state that boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate. Health care remains fairly strong just about everywhere.

Even if the U.S. economy is sputtering, companies are benefiting from a growing worldwide demand for their products and services.

That explains why Mori Seiki Co., a Japanese machine-tools manufacturer, will soon pour the foundation for a 150-employee factory in Davis, west of Sacramento.

"People have to have automobiles and planes and medical equipment," said Adam Hansel, a Mori Seiki executive in Davis. "They need machines like ours."

Make no mistake, though: In many places, even the birth of a factory can get lost in waves of news about a faltering recovery and a 9.1 percent national unemployment rate. The Mori Seiki factory, for instance, will make barely a dent in the 12.5 percent unemployment gripping the Sacramento metro area, which includes Davis.

Generally, the job market is brighter in communities that avoided the excesses of the housing bubble. The unemployment rate in Oklahoma City, where there wasn't much of a housing boom, is 5.7 percent _ the lowest among large U.S. metro areas.

"I don't think things got as crazy," said Chad Richison, chief executive of the Oklahoma City human resources firm Paycom.

Oklahoma City, which has a working oil well on the grounds of the state Capitol, is reaping the benefits of the run-up in energy prices. In the last year alone, 1,300 energy jobs have been created in the city.

A boom in shale oil, plus strong crop prices, have driven unemployment in North Dakota to 3.3 percent, the lowest in the country.

"Oil and gas are obviously carrying us, but the agricultural economy is doing pretty good, too," said Steve Pine of Great Northern Energy, an oil-services firm in Bismarck.

North Dakota and Oklahoma City are clear outliers, however. For most parts of the country _ even those doing relatively well _ the recession remains a nagging reality.

Look at the "Texas miracle," which is getting increasing scrutiny as Gov. Rick Perry seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

Thanks largely to growth in energy, trade, hospitality and other sectors, Texas has added 269,500 jobs in the past year, more than any other state.

Even so, its job market has struggled to keep up with population growth. Unemployment is 8.4 percent, the highest since 1987.

"There's been no real movement in the pool of unemployed workers out there," said Cheryl Abbott, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Dallas.

So when the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, near Dallas, posted several hundred job openings recently, it was flooded with applicants.

"We have a lot of people looking for work," said Martha Neibling, a hotel spokeswoman.

The revival in some U.S. factories is less about the American economy and more about the global environment. The cheap dollar makes U.S.-made goods a bargain overseas, and growing Asian economies fuel demand.

Result: Shipments from California's ports have returned to pre-recession levels.

That's helping create jobs in some of the unlikeliest places _ including Midwestern factory towns that had long been written off.

"The Rust Belt-y kinds of places aren't doing too badly these days," said Steve Cochrane, who tracks regional economies for the Moody's Analytics consulting firm. "Peoria, Ill.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Fort Wayne, Ind. _ these are very diversified manufacturing centers."

U.S. factories have added nearly 290,000 jobs since late 2009. Yet that's just a sliver of the 2 million-plus factory jobs lost to the recession.

Often, pain and progress go side by side. That's especially true in places still feeling the effects of the housing crash.

Charlotte, N.C., has a success story in Red Ventures, an Internet marketing firm that will add 500 jobs by year's end. But the firm's growth is overshadowed by the downsizing in Charlotte's signature industry, banking.

Home to Bank of America, the city suffered when the housing collapse rippled through the financial sector. Some 4,000 banking jobs have disappeared since 2007, and the story isn't over: Bank of America just announced 3,500 more layoffs, although it didn't say where they'll occur.

Bottom line: Charlotte unemployment is pinned at 11.2 percent.

Similarly, a nationwide uptick in tourism hasn't been enough to rescue Las Vegas.

Vegas crashed about as badly as anyplace. Casinos found themselves drowning in debt and the construction market fell apart.

Lately, the tourists have returned and casino employment is up 2.5 percent from a year ago.

"We're still not where we need to be," said George Maloof, who runs Las Vegas' Palms Casino Resort. "But we have seen the bottom. ... Things are looking better."

Still, the city reels from the effects of the housing crash. The Palms, like many casinos, is stuck with scores of unsold condominium units. The Maloofs, who own the Sacramento Kings NBA team, lost controlling interest in the Palms to creditors this year.

Because of the ongoing slump in real estate, Las Vegas' unemployment rate is an outsized 14 percent. Nevada's statewide unemployment rate is the nation's highest, 12.9 percent.

In California's ailing Central Valley, the housing crash remains a fresh and bitter memory. Stockton resident Mike Terry lost his job when Mervyns, the California department store chain, went out of business in 2008.

"I lost my house and both my cars," said Terry, a husband and father of two young children.

He spent $42,000 at a trade school becoming an auto technician. But after a short stint as a smog tester, he was laid off last September.

"I keep trying to find work," he said. "They tell me I'm overqualified. Or, for the jobs I really want, they won't even give me the time of day."

Terry is leaving California with his family to live with his mother in Michigan. Despite that state's 10.9 percent unemployment rate, the auto industry is rebounding and a relative has set up a job interview for Terry with Chrysler.

In many parts of the country, the recovery is choppy and uneven.

Take Kansas City, Mo., where the Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are spending tens of millions of dollars retooling their plants. Cerner Corp., a tech company that digitizes health records, has added more than 800 software developers, systems engineers and other workers this year. Another company, Perceptive Software, has created more than 200 jobs in the past year.

"Our typical source of talent _ young professionals with the right degrees _ is drying up a bit," said Perceptive spokesman Jeremy McNeive. "We're going to have to broaden our talent search beyond the regional universities."

So everything's rosy in Kansas City, right? Not exactly.

Unemployment is 8.5 percent, and regional economist Frank Lenk predicts it will be 2013 or 2014 before Kansas City recoups all the jobs it lost in the recession. The area is still absorbing the impact of 8,000 jobs that have disappeared in recent years at Kansas City's largest corporate citizen, Sprint Nextel.

The grudging nature of the recovery shows even in the high-tech sector, which is feasting on the growing popularity of social networking and mobile applications.

San Jose, Calif., the industry's epicenter, has posted robust job growth of 3.6 percent in the past year. Unemployment has dropped a full point, to 10.4 percent.

But this isn't 1999, when the first Internet boom drove Silicon Valley's unemployment rate below 3 percent and "you just had to fog a mirror" to get a job, said Bay Area headhunter Dawn Block.

In this tech revival, employers are far more discriminating.

"If you're not an A player, if you're just average or mediocre, you're not going to find many opportunities," she said. "Standards are higher, and it's all, 'Show me' and 'Prove it to me.'"

(Kasler and Reese report for The Sacramento Bee. Also contributing were McClatchy reporters Diane Stafford of The Kansas City Star, Scott Nishimura of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Kirsten Pittman of The Charlotte Observer.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Got 10 bucks for a cup of joe? Speculators bid up coffee prices

For young 'Millennials,' an American dream deferred

U.S. buckling down for a long, tough economic slog

For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service