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Job market competitive

October 12, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Alicia Jones earned her bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology three years ago, but she hasn't been able to put it to use.

Double-digit unemployment where she was living in Ankara, Turkey, was mostly to blame.

Now that she has moved to Washington County, August's 3.7 percent unemployment rate is rather encouraging.

"I kind of laughed when we got here and my folks said unemployment is really bad," said Jones' husband, Randy Jones, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force.

Compared to the situation in 2000, when the unemployment rate hit an annual low of 3.1 percent, job seekers in Washington County have had more competition, said Shanon Wolf, job service manager for the Hagerstown office of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

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But the local job market fared pretty well during the economic downturn of the past few years, she said.

"We look at the unemployment rate and it's still a very manageable rate," said Cassandra Latimer, marketing specialist for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

There was no dramatic jump in the rate and this year the rate has improved modestly, Wolf said.

Jobs unchanged


The types of jobs that are available has not changed much in the past few years, she said. Transportation and material handling, which includes jobs in the trucking and warehousing industries, remain in high demand.

Clerical work, including call centers, and sales, particularly retail sales, remain strong areas of employment, she said.

However, Wolf said her statistics do not always reflect the reality of the local job market. Companies seeking professional, technical and managerial employees may not necessarily advertise with her agency, thinking they won't find the type of job seekers they are looking for.

Citicorp Credit Services, the county's single largest private employer, has hired about 600 new customer service representatives this year, said spokesman Phil Kelly. The company holds testing sessions for potential employees twice a week and has consistently been getting 20 to 40 applicants each time, he said.

When unemployment was low, it was a job seekers' market. But that has changed in the last several years, Wolf said.

"The employers have more people to choose from so the job seekers have to be a little more competitive," she said.

The fact that Washington County came through the economic downturn without a spike in the unemployment rate proves that the local job market is stable, Latimer said. No longer is Washington County dependent on a few major employers for the bulk of its employment, she said.

Seeking to diversify


However, the economic development commission always is looking to diversify the job market and draw new and better types of jobs to the county, Wolf said.

"We're not satisfied with accepting whatever comes down the pike, so to speak," she said.

One recent example of that is Intelsat, an international telecommunications company that recently opened a teleport facility in Friendship Technology Park off Interstate 70. It's the county's first global high-tech business, she said.

Wolf was unable to give statistics about the job seekers who use the services of her office in Hagerstown's Public Square.

The Joneses were at the office looking at job possibilities less than 72 hours after their plane landed.

They are living with Randy Jones' parents in Boonsboro while they look for a home and a school for their 15-year-old daughter.

Randy Jones had been working for a government contractor in Turkey, but the work began to dwindle after major fighting in the war with Iraq ended.

"Politically, things have gone downhill. I saw the writing on the wall," he said.

The couple weighed their options and decided to come back to the United States in the hope that Alicia Jones will find a social work job that uses her degree. Such a job was elusive in Turkey.

According to the CIA Factbook, Turkey had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent and an underemployment rate of 6.1 percent in 2002. Underemployment is when people work in jobs for which they are overqualified.

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