Hopeful Applicants Settle For Spare Job Openings

Originally published on August 10, 2011 12:56 pm

Check the want ads in just about any city or town in the U.S. and you'll find the words, "Help Wanted." The economy added only a few thousand jobs in June, according to the latest jobs report, and 14 million Americans remain out of work.

But there are jobs in Allentown, Pa. The town used to depend on steel and heavy manufacturing. Those jobs are largely gone, but Allentown has become an important distribution point for goods passing through on their way to New York and Philadelphia. And there are open positions — especially if you can drive a forklift.

Tom Bradley is trying to find people to work in a warehouse for $11 to $15 an hour. Bradley is a recruiter for Assante, which provides "contingent workers" — also known as temps — for other companies. Lately, he's been running a job fair at the CareerLink office in Allentown every week.

"We're very busy. I foresee doing this for at least the next seven, eight weeks to help fill up our pipeline of people who want to go to work," he says.

You might think the high unemployment rate would make Bradley's job easier, but, he says, it's not that simple.

"As long as the government continues to extend unemployment benefits, there's a certain percentage of people that would prefer just to stay home, and get paid for staying home," he says.

Officially, the unemployment rate in Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley is 8.4 percent. But the real number of people out of work is probably much higher, says Gina Kormanik of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board.

"When you do the number of discouraged workers, it may be closer to 14, 15 percent, actually. Our goal is to make sure people are connected to the workforce. Because if they haven't been into training in the last six months, year, two years, they're out of date," she says.

Peter Rittenhouse runs two Nestle Water bottling plants in the Lehigh Valley, just west of Allentown. "We produce about 6 million bottles a day. And we're right at about 1 million gallons of water a day," Rittenhouse says.

He's hired about 25 people this year, for jobs paying as much as $20 an hour. There's no shortage of applicants, Rittenhouse says, but many lack the computer and technical expertise to work in a highly automated factory.

"A lot of the unemployed people that we see don't have the skills we're looking for, in terms of helping us solve problems in a high-speed environment. That's where the dilemma is," he says.

Those who go back to school for more training are finding that their new education doesn't guarantee them a new job.

"There's opportunities. But a lot of people are afraid to hire. And those that are hiring, are actually hiring from within," John Branch says.

At the CareerLink office in Allentown, Branch is waiting to use one of the computers for job seekers to post resumes and search listings. He graduated a month ago from a local community college with a degree in IT.

Kristina Fritz is also using the CareerLink computer, but she's looking for a clerical job, like the one she lost several years ago when the company she worked for went out of business.

For now, Fritz says she's settling for a job at a local warehouse.

"You do what you have to do," she says. "I see more frustration in people, you know what I mean? Like now, what are they going to do?"

Judging by the turnout at the job fair, a lot of people have decided that a warehouse job is better than no job at all.

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A: help wanted.

For a snapshot of who's hiring, who's applying and who isn't, NPR's Joel Rose went to Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania.

JOEL ROSE: Allentown used to depend on steel and heavy manufacturing. Those jobs are largely gone. But Allentown has become an important distribution point for goods passing through on their way to New York and Philadelphia. And there are definitely jobs here, especially if you can drive a forklift.

TOM BRADLEY: So, you're looking for warehouse labor work?

Unidentified Woman #1: Right.

BRADLEY: Okay. Can you tell me what shift best suits your lifestyle?

Woman #1: Second shift.

BRADLEY: Second shift, that's great.

ROSE: Tom Bradley is a recruiter for Assante, a company that provides contingent workers - what you or I might call temps - for other companies. Right now, Bradley is trying to find people to work in a warehouse for 11 to $15 an hour. And lately, he's been running a job fair like this one at the CareerLink office in Allentown every week.

BRADLEY: We're very busy. I foresee doing this for at least the next seven, eight weeks to help fill up our pipeline of folks who want to go to work.

ROSE: You might think the high unemployment rate would make Bradley's job easier. He says it's not that simple.

BRADLEY: As long as the government continues to extend unemployment benefits, there's a certain percentage of people that would prefer just to stay home and get paid for staying home.

ROSE: Officially, the unemployment rate in Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley is 8.4 percent. But the real number of people out of work is probably much higher, says Gina Kormanik at the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board.

GINA KORMANIK: When you do the number of discouraged workers, it might be closer to 14, 15 percent, actually. Our goal is to make sure that people are connected to the workforce system, so that they get the training, because they're not - if they haven't been into training in the last six months, year or two years, they're out of date.

PETER RITTENHOUSE: We produce about six million bottles a day. And we're right at about a million gallons of water a day.

ROSE: Peter Rittenhouse runs two Nestle Waters bottling plants in the Lehigh Valley, just west of Allentown.

Rittenhouse has hired about 25 people this year, for jobs paying as much as $20 an hour. Rittenhouse says there's no shortage of applicants, but many lack the computer and technical expertise to work in a highly automated factory.

RITTENHOUSE: A lot of the unemployed people that we see don't have the kind of skills that we're looking for, in terms of helping us solve problems in a high-speed environment. That's where the dilemma is.

ROSE: And even those who do go back to school for more training find that's no guarantee of landing a job.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning, career resource center.

ROSE: At the CareerLink office in Allentown, John Branch is waiting to use one of the computers where job seekers can post resumes and search listings. Branch graduated a month ago from a local community college with a degree in IT.

JOHN BRANCH: There's opportunities but a lot of people are afraid to hire. And those that are hiring are actually hiring from within.

KRISTINA FRITZ: There are so many people out there that it's just - it's a numbers game.

ROSE: Kristina Fritz is also using the CareerLink computers to look for work, specifically a clerical job, like the one she lost several years ago when the company she worked for went out of business. But for now, Fritz says she's settling for a job at a local warehouse.

FRITZ: You do what you have to do and a lot of other people are doing it. But I do see a change and I see more frustration in people. You know what I mean? More like, now what are they going to do?

ROSE: Judging by the turnout at the job fair I saw, a lot of people have decided that a warehouse job is better than no job at all.

Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.