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Washington County's slow recovery making employers cautious

September 15, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • Winebrenner Transfer Inc. secretary Angel Zurvalec, right, chats Friday with company driver Jim Morris at the trucking company's Conococheague location. Zurvalec started with the firm last year as a temporary employee, but later was given full-time status.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Washington County’s slow recovery from the recession is making employers cautious about whether to hire more workers, according to local job training and employment specialists.

As a result, many of the businesses that are seeing some spurts in sales are asking current employees to work longer hours or are turning to so-called temp firms to supply workers who might or might not still be needed in a few months, said Peter P. Thomas, executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium.

“More companies are offering current employees overtime and using temporary employees,” said Thomas, whose agency has helped the unemployed for decades. “The recovery has been spotty. Temporary (employment) firms are very busy.

“So there’s lots of temporary jobs and that is because companies are still uncertain and they don’t want to make the commitment that you have to make when you hire an employee with benefits.”

For the thousands of area residents still looking for work, this is good news and bad news.

The good is that there is more work.

The bad news is that so many of the new jobs are temporary.

And with Washington County’s unemployment rate at 8.5 percent in July — compared to 3.9 percent in December 2007 when the nation’s recession officially began — finding a full-time permanent job offer is that much harder, unless you have the special skills still in demand.

“From what I’ve read, hiring temporary workers has been the norm throughout the country,” Thomas said. “Employers can get away with that when the unemployment rate is high, whereas when the unemployment rate is low, workers are not as willing to consider temporary jobs.”

Nonetheless, even in this economy, there is a path the jobless can follow to try to turn bad news into good, according to Thomas and local employment specialists.

“When we hire individuals as (temporary) contract employees, we often tell them that a certain percentage of people that are placed at any company will eventually be hired by the client as permanent employees,” said Lisa Coblentz, co-owner and vice president of the Manpower Inc. franchise offices in Hagerstown, Frederick, Md., Martinsburg, W.Va., and Winchester, Va.

“The good news is that the workers themselves can influence what happens,” Coblentz said. “It becomes a responsibility on them as to how they perform.”


Success stories

Angel Zurvalec, 51, and Josh Dietz, 29, are proof there is reason for such hope.

In March 2011, when Zurvalec’s job as a secretary at a construction company ended suddenly, “it was very frightening,” she said.

“I had rent to pay and utilities and all of my bills. And the wait between monies that you can collect on unemployment is probably three or four weeks — turned out, it wouldn’t even cover my rent. And the loss of health insurance. My out-of-pocket cost (on medicine) was $500 a month, so you’re faced with a lot of scary choices.”

Zurvalec said her fiance helped.

“Had I not been engaged, I would have been forced to go back to my parents at 51,” she said.

With more than 20 years as a project assistant doing invoices and payroll for contractors, Zurvalec said she immediately began looking every day for a new job. But, she said, her age and experience hurt her chances.

Of the many jobs she sought, one was at a company where she had the advantage of knowing someone who already worked there. As a result, she said, she was called in for an interview, but didn’t get the job.

“I was told they received something like over 400 resumes for the one position. Four hundred resumes for one job!” Zurvalec said.

The company told her she had too much experience for what they needed, she said.

“And, from their point-of-view, yes, I was overqualified. But I was so desperate, I would have taken anything,” she said.

“And that ‘overqualified’ reason is confusing sometimes. I’m overqualified, so why wouldn’t you want me?” Zurvalec asked. “A lot of it is just the money. They think they are going to have to pay for my skills and, yes, to some extent. But there is negotiation.”

So, eight months after looking unsuccessfully on her own, Zurvalec turned to Manpower. The employment services company interviewed her and hired her as a temporary contract employee to fill a local trucking company’s need for a secretary, local Manpower manager Sandi Glessner said.

Randy Winebrenner, president of trucking company Winebrenner Transfer Inc. of Hagerstown, said he uses the temp agency “because they send me somebody qualified and if they work out, I hire them. I can’t interview and have 100 office people coming here, trying to pick one.”

And so, after a few months, Winebrenner hired Zurvalec as a full-time secretary.

“I found my dream job. That’s the best part about this whole thing,” Zurvalec said. “It has worked out very well for me. And, I now have health insurance again.”

Manpower’s temp system worked for Dietz, too.

Having worked full time as a sales rep for six years in Hagerstown, Dietz left in late 2007 for what he thought was a better job, working full time operating a forklift and other equipment at a warehouse in Chambersburg, Pa.

But the recession had started and as it deepened, the businesses that paid to have their products stored in the warehouse cut back, hurting Dietz’s new employer. Dietz said his work hours dropped from about 50 a week to as low as 25 a week.

The cutback affected the entire work force, he said.

“It went from a three-shift company, to two shifts, then to one shift with less than 25 people total” as workers were idled, he said.

With the future there looking “kind of bleak,” Dietz said, he resigned to find a better job. A newspaper ad by Manpower gave him a new start and, within a week, he said, he was working as a temp for more than 40 hours a week “for significantly more money” at another warehouse.

A few months later, Dietz got another break. Increasingly busy, Manpower itself wanted Dietz working full time instead in its Hagerstown office “because he had extreme attention to details and had great accuracy,” Glessner said.

Then, last winter, when Dietz said the client activity at Manpower and other such agencies normally slows, Manpower sent him to work as a temp at Fil-Tec Inc.

A Cavetown manufacturer, it needed help in customer service while a female employee was on maternity leave, he said.

But then, another woman retired and he was hired full time in April, working in customer service and as an administrative assistant at Fil-Tec, Dietz said.

Looking back, Dietz said he feels “very fortunate” to have stayed employed and to have landed another full-time permanent job during the recession, at a time when so many others still are struggling.

Asked what his advice would be for others, Dietz said, “I would say, keep plugging away and always have your options open because, for the most part even before sales and the warehouse, I had always done work with equipment. I had never done any office work.

“I can’t thank Manpower enough. It’s opened up another option for me. Two years ago, when I was working at (the warehouse), I wouldn’t have predicted that today, I’d be (working in an) office.”

Bringing in temporary workers such as Dietz has proven wise in the uncertain economic times, said Kim Winebrenner, vice president of administration at Fil-Tec. In all, it has about 110 employees now, she said.

“I think we initially started bringing temps in for various reasons, but that (economic uncertainty) was one of the reasons. I use all resources available” in finding new employees, said Winebrenner, who isn’t related to Randy Winebrenner.

During the recession, “we did have to lay people off and it was the first time in our history that we have had to do that,” Kim Winebrenner said. “But we are growing and expanding, and we are coming out of the recession confidently.”

Fil-Tec makes many products, including high-temperature sewing threads, engineered yarns and fiberglass gasketing materials. Its products are used in such items as sofas, mattresses, comforters, shirts and hats, as well as helping to deliver electricity, Internet and telephone services worldwide, according to its website.

“We have growth with some of our existing business,” but the reason for optimism now is “more based on some new products that we’re developing,” Kim Winebrenner said. “We’re a diversified company, so we’re always expanding into other industries and developing new products.”


Uncertain steps

In the 25 years since she began working for Manpower, franchise co-owner Coblentz said she has experienced a couple of downturns in the nation’s economy.

Coming out of them, “generally, what we see is a very defined turn-around time that’s clearly marked,” Coblentz said.

“The difference I’ve seen in this one that’s been painful for everyone, is there’s no clear recovery. For our employers, our clients, it’s just felt like we’re bumping along — for a number of years. So, it’s not been: ‘The recession’s over. We’re moving forward.’”

So, many area employers “are still concerned and hesitant about bringing on staff. They’re thinking twice. If they get a new client or new orders, they’re hesitant to bring in new staff,” Coblentz said.

“Prior to the recession, the volume users of our services were companies that had peak seasons. So, if they were going to be really busy from May to September, they’d say, ‘Let’s bring in temp contract associates and then after season, we just let them go,’” she said.

“And now, what we’re seeing that’s different is, people are saying, ‘We’re starting to grow again, but we’re growing slowly. We could really use another person in the accounting department, but I’m not ready to commit.’”

So that’s why temp agencies have become really busy, said Amanda Heisey, an account manager at the Hagerstown office of Aerotek, an employment placement agency.

“When I started back in spring of 2008, honestly, we weren’t very busy,” Heisey said. “We didn’t have as many clients calling in. They (local companies) were just looking to maintain their current level of employees.”

But now, companies “have started to slowly come back, needing employees,” said Heisey, who recruits clients from among businesses throughout Washington County and in Cumberland, Md.

Officials at the companies she visits “are telling me they definitely have some upcoming projects in the works. They aren’t as busy as they would like to be right now,” but busier times are in sight, Heisey said.

“It hasn’t happened quite yet. I think the ones that are hiring, they have gotten the work a little bit sooner.”


Like jump-starting an engine

Jeff Hull is feeling good about the economy right now, but he’s still feeling uncertain.

“We are definitely in a growth mode here once again, so I’m seeing business come back,” said Hull, who with his wife, Beth, owns BJ’s Custom Creations in Hagerstown.

“We sell decorated apparel. I’m seeing some companies come back to me (as customers) that I haven’t seen in a long while and I’m seeing some companies I hadn’t before. To me, it seems a bright (economic) spot to the area,” Hull said.

But given how bad things got during the recession, the growth that has followed still feels tentative, he said.

“This spring, things started to pick up and it’s been steady since then. As I say that, it’s like when you jump-start an engine — it’s very busy and then, it’s slowed back to where I wish it wouldn’t. It’s slowly going up, but it’s making big ups and downs,” he said.

“Like this week, I don’t have enough staff to get all the work done. Next week, I might have too much (staff). I just don’t know what to tell you.”

Nonetheless, Hull said, he is ready to move forward with optimism.

“I’m in a growth mode and, truthfully, I’m looking for some good employees right now,” he said.

The company, which the Hulls launched in 1995, had grown to about 50 employees by 2008. But two years later, as the recession bit down harder, employment fell “to the mid-20s,” Hull said.

Having to lose so many skilled workers was tough.

“That’s what was the worst part about having to lay off people a few years ago,” he said. “Now, I scratch my head and say, ‘Boy, if I could have held onto them.’ But if I had, none of us would have a job in this company right now.”

At present, BJ’s has “40-couple” employees, he said.

Going to a temp agency to find the additional workers he wants now would make sense given the economy’s uncertainty, but Hull said it probably isn’t what he’ll do to get the specially trained workers he needs.

“I need some people with some textile printing experience. To be honest with you, they don’t necessarily have to have textile printing experience, as they need to have the desire to learn it, with some good work ethics,” he said.

“It would be the way to go if they (temp agencies) could bring me some skilled people. If they don’t have that experience, I’m looking at a few months to have another worker train them, which would put me behind.”

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