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Sizing up the employment industry.

Longtime Alaskans have experienced the state's roller-coaster job market. Many times when the economy has heated up in the lower 48, work has slowed in the 49th state, causing job opportunities to evaporate. On the other hand, when the doldrums have besieged Outside markets, the good times frequently have started rolling up here, bringing increased demand for workers.

Trend watchers in Alaska's employment industry warn against complacent acceptance of the boom-bust cycle. Many economists say this national recession, unlike more classic slowdowns in the past, may reflect a fundamental shift in the way Americans work. In the years ahead, Alaska too will be pulled into the vortex of change.

Such trends are food for speculation at employment agencies, which have witnessed the state economy's extreme highs and lows of the past decade. To keep pace with their industry, employment counselors keep one eye on macro trends at the natioal level and the other eye trained on the specific prospects of individuals looking for jobs in the local market.

Alaska long has been mythologized as the place where an adventuresome soul, with little formal education, can settle and make a fortune. Such legends have been supported by many real-life examples, from Gov. Walter Hickel to Larry Carr, founder of the Carrs Quality Foods empire.

But today's Alaskans probably will need more education to join the ranks of the state's self-made heroes. Ron Fraze, president and owner of North Employment Agency in Anchorage, says, "We need to recognize that 90 percent of blue-collar jobs will be gone by the year 2000. The work force is changing. This is probably the last generation that can do without an education to compete well. Everyone will have to be computer literate."

K

Ken Goldstein, an economist who analyzes national recruitment advertising for the New York-based Conference Board, comments in HRM News, a publication of the Society for Human Resource Management, that this recession is not the cause of the depressed job market nationwide. Overall, he notes, there seems to be a shift in corporate concerns - what he calls the "substitution of capital for labor," or machines for people.

"This trend has been happening for some time, but now is accelerating," according to Goldstein. The already low demand for the entry-level worker with no skills and little education is expected to shrink still more because of the increasing use of technology.

Supply & Demand. Bettye Smith, owner and president of Personnel Pool Temporary Service in Anchorage and president of Alaska Employment Agency in Anchorage, notices the impact of changes in the national job market almost daily. "We're seeing an influx of applicants due to the recession Outside. More people are coming up (to Alaska) for fewer jobs. Employers are swamped."

That's where her service steps in. Smith says it might take an hour to screen each applicant, looking beyond statements in their resumes to determine whether applicants are transient. Are they here on a two-week vacation applying on impulse? Or are they highly motivated, skilled applicants who have transferred from "negative environments like L.A. or New York" and want to live and work where the air is clean?

While the ripple effect of national employment trends in inescapable, local employment counselors also observe the state economy with bated breath. "Thinks look fine now," comments Fraze. "Real estate is going well. But my crystal ball is cloudy. If we don't have ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) or a gas line, if we see pipeline production decreasing by 50 percent, what do we have to turn things around?" With 85 percent of the state's income based on oil, everybody in the state would be affected by such changes, he notes.

"People like to think they're independent up here," concurs Mary Shields, general manager of Northwest Technical Service in Anchorage. "But in fact, the revenues of Nordstrom, Safeway and Carrs are tied to oil; everything but the military." Shields says 99.5 percent of her company's business is conducted with the oil firms, their subsidiaries and the oil-field service industry.

With Alaska's economy stable in comparison to the rest of the nation, employment agencies have seen their business grow. Fraze, who started in the business 12 years ago, says that during the recent but period, there were 8 or 10 agencies in Anchorage. Today there are 22. He notes that 10 years ago "we could predict the slack times. We can't predict as well now." That fact, he suggests hopefully, may mean there's more diversity in the state's industries and businesses.

Temporary Solutions. Of all the changes in the employment industry, the most significant is the shift away from permanent placements. "There's a ton of people doing temporary work," says Fraze. "Headhunters were big in the early '80s, but many are now gone. It was an expensive service, and people didn't get what they wanted."

Meanwhile, temporary agencies sprang up nationwide throughout the '80s, becoming the country's second fastest growing industry, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. To explain the growth in temporary services, Fraze points to the painful period of layoffs early in the decade. Managers didn't want to go through that trauma again, so they hired temporaries. The solution remained viable into the '90s, as recession-hit companies decided not to replace full-time salaried employees.

The agencies represented by Fraze, Smith, and Shields each have capitalized on the demand for temporary help, using different strategies. Fraze describes North Employment Agency as a "generalist" firm. The agency places a wide range of workers, from clerical personnel to ship captains, professional engineers and project managers.

Fraze notes that he and his colleagues strive for flexibility so they can respond to unexpected market blips. "It changes from year to year. With the oil spill, we were suddenly dealing with new people and a volume of people," he says.

Fraze points out that placing specialized people in Alaska is more difficult than in a larger market. "People just don't leave the good jobs," he explains.

Rent a Worker. Personnel Pool and Northwest Technical Services are responding to the demand for temporaries in an innovative fashion that's gaining popularity nationwide. They employ a cadre of carefully screened workers, then rent or lease the employees to their clients.

In general, whether a leased worker's stint is short or long, employee-leasing companies issue the paychecks, take care of personnel matters, ensure compliance with workplace regulations, and provide various employee benefits. In some cases, reports Nation's Business magazine, a small business will turn its work force over to a leasing company, then sign a contract to lease back the same workers.

Typically, the client's total expenses for payroll, taxes, personnel administration and benefits remain roughly the same. The advantages of the arrangement include reduced paperwork burdens and greatly enhanced benefits for workers. Employee leasing also offers economies of scale to small businesses that otherwise would pay astronomical rates for employee benefits.

Comparing temporary versus contract employees, Shields says temporary workers usually work only a few weeks for each client and receive no benefits. Northwest Technical Services places such workers, usually in clerical or administrative positions, and fulfills short-term demand for lab technicians, casual labor and carpenters.

The bulk of the agency's work, however, is in screening and placing contract workers. These people, usually engineers, designers, drafters and lab technicians, are given specific responsibilities. Sometimes contract workers receive long-terms benefits such as paid holidays, insurance and vacation leave. Shields says temporary and contract employment nationwide has increased 200 to 300 percent annually since 1985.

A business looking to lease temporary employees has at least two hiring options. The employer can seek and find the right employee, then negotiate to lease the employee from the leasing service. Or the employer can turn the entire search, negotiation and hiring process over to the leasing agency.

Shields says her service has placed both individuals and teams of workers on a contract basis. She notes that as the leasing concept has become more popular in Alaska, an increasing number of requests for proposals have gone out to agencies. For example, her firm might assemble an engineering project team that meets strict guidelines. The firm then submits a proposal in a competitive bid.

Smith's Personnel Pool, as a subdivision of H&R Block, can offer its leased employees the range of benefits they would receive as employees of a large company. The placement firm serves a varied list of clients, ranging from the one-person business facing a work overload to the government office or major firm with a maternity leave to cover. Personnel Pool employees are chielf clerical staff or light industrial workers such as truck drivers for moving companies.

Stacking Up. "We don't just send out warm bodies," asserts Smith. Her company employs a testing program to substantiate applicants' claims about typing speed and familiarity with computer software. "Something I see more than ever before is inflated resumes," she notes. But the tests also reveal "a lot of wonderful people who underestimate their abilities." Depending on the results of test and interviews, resumes often are beefed up or toned down, Smith Adds.

The former president of Alaska Junio College, Smith has developed a long-term ineterest in the role of eduation in job placement. "If you don't have computer skills, you can't get a job anymore," she warns. "Math, accounting, clerical and computer skills are all vital."

Just as mportant are a good appearance and attitude and the ability to work in a team, she adds. "It's not an employee's market anymore. But there are lots of wonderful schools here where you can upgrade your skills."

Smith attributes the success of temporary agencies and employee-leasing arrangements to a more rigorous business climate with decreasing profit margins and increased overhead expenses. "Employers have been burned too many times. It's expensive. They want to try out employees first," she explains.

This new attitude has entailed an emotional adjustment for many Alaskan job applicants. During the last boom period, clerical and light industrial workers earned high wages, Smith says. Now they have trouble adjusting to reality. "If you want a high salary these days, you have to offer something," she notes.

Clerical salaries have fallen around 25 percent from their boomtime highs, according to Smith. At the same time, competition is greater and employers' expectations have risen. "The laissez-faire attitude of the past doesn't cut it any more. Employers want someone there every day and on time. They can't afford to keep a troublemaker," Smith says. "People have to get back to realizing who signs their checks."

North Employment Agency's Fraze visits high schools and colleges to talk to students about career options. "We're going through changing times," he says. "I try to tel young people they need to know when to change. People don't want to work for a company for 45 years anymore."

Fraze advises his audiences to "enjoy what you're doing. If you hate your work, you'll dry up inside." He encourages them to view success in terms of a good journey and to realize that "you're only successful when you can make other people successful,"

Fraze's encouraging words apply equally well to his own matchmaking industry. As Smith says, "We have to protect both the employee's and the employer's interest." If one side fails, they both suffer. Ultimately, whether a counselor places permanent staff members, locates temporary fill-ins to cover a crunch or leases ready-made project teams, the daily formula for success at Alaska's employment services begins with the search for that perfect fit.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Alaska's job market
Author:Kilcup, Jodi
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:1916
Previous Article:Throwing the switch at Bradley Lake.
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