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In New Orleans, high-paying jobs have yet to return

NEW ORLEANS—Wayne Chambless used to see people in suits when he looked out the window of the Sir Speedy print shop he owns downtown.

These days, it's mostly T-shirts, jeans and hard-hats.

Chambless estimates his shop, nestled among the city's skyscrapers and their good-paying jobs, had almost 200 regular customers. Since reopening a couple of weeks ago, he's heard from only about five of them.

"Most of the work that I'm getting now is coming from people doing the work—the out-of-town contractors wanting forms and things, and some insurance adjusters," Chambless said.

Two months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still healing. Retail stores and restaurants in and around the city are limping along with reduced staffs. Stores are having trouble getting goods from stock rooms to shelves. It's common to see limited hours, limited service and limited menus. It's unusual to see a store or restaurant here without a help-wanted sign as managers scramble to become fully staffed and operational.

But there's little demand yet for accountants, bankers, and other high-paying professional positions. The corporations that employ such people have yet to return—and may not for quite a while.

Louisiana State University economist Robert Newman said the city's infrastructure, shopping, dining, housing and schools are all part of a system that has been "thrown a curveball" and needs to be fixed before corporations will feel comfortable returning.

"It doesn't do me much good to have a job if there's no place to shop," Newman said.

That has left an imbalance in the job market. Low-skill jobs that normally offer low pay are going unfilled. High-skill jobs have an abundance of candidates.

Chris Perkins has hired only five workers since the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop he manages reopened about a month ago—even though the starting pay has increased to $7 per hour, plus a bonus of $15 for every eight hours worked. He needs about 20 more workers. Some employers are offering bonuses as high as $6,000 to attract workers.

That high demand extends to construction workers and laborers needed for repairs.

"The labor pool down here is definitely a worker's market," said Herbert Santos, a board member of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO and the business manager for Painters Local 80.

But professional workers are having trouble finding work.

Suzanne Sehon of Remedy Intelligent Staffing, an employee recruiter, said jobs and applicants just aren't matching well.

Sehon recruits administrators, clerks and other professionals for some of the city's top companies and law firms. At a job fair last Tuesday in Metairie, just west of New Orleans, she had only about 50 positions that needed to be filled, and she predicted a dozen of those would be taken before the end of the week by some of the roughly 350 job seekers who spoke with her.

"I've seen degreed accountants, high-end administrative people, IT (information technology) professionals, health care workers, lots of teachers, government workers," Sehon said.

It's easy to see why professionals are looking for employment.

Many downtown buildings remain fenced off. Chambless, the print shop owner, said elevators still aren't working in some buildings. Other buildings don't have water on the upper floors.

Several corporations such as Entergy Corp., which had about 1,400 employees downtown, have temporarily relocated.

Entergy spokeswoman Yolanda Pollard said the company hopes to move its headquarters back to New Orleans from a temporary location at the former WorldCom building in Mississippi.

"There are many factors we have to consider before we could return, such as places for employees to live, schools for their children to attend, adequate medical facilities, transportation, and infrastructure," Pollard said. "Our employees can only work where they are safe and secure and where an adequate, functioning infrastructure exists. We have to be able to ensure that those conditions exist before we can return to New Orleans."

Perhaps visitors are the city's brightest rays of hope.

Tourists spent almost $5 billion last year, according to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. And they're already returning.

"Technically, we're not inviting visitors back until January," said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the bureau. "But I can't stop people from coming. It warms our heart in New Orleans to know how many people are fond of our city."

Priez said the city expects to have about 22,000 hotel rooms available by Jan. 1, up from the 10,000 to 12,000 available now.

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(Brueggemann reports for the Belleville (Ill.) News Democrat.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-HOUSING

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