But pace remains modest for most; 'signs of spring thaw'

NORTH BAY -- While some observers remain skeptical about reports of gradual improvements in the labor markets, a growing number of North Bay personnel and human resources experts are guardedly optimistic with some seeing signs of a rebound.

“Businesses are still only hiring as they have a need and are making decisions day by day, but companies are more willing to talk to us. We’re getting more employer calls than we did six months ago,” according to Sandi Weimer, manager of Express Employment Professionals.

Jim Geist, regional manager for Nelson & Associates, with offices in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, confirms this trend.  “Last year was a deep freeze winter, but we’re now seeing signs of a spring thaw.  Confidence is definitely higher, and there is less fear these days. We’re hearing more chatter among employers about 2010 budgets that will include new positions.

"The health care sector is doing well, and wineries are coming back to life. There is positive movement toward hiring more temporary help as well as more full timers.  We had a few false starts in mid-2009, but now there appears that a more sustained recovery may be under way.”

While an increasing number of employment firms are seeing light at the end of the job gap, a few have a different perspective.  “We’re starting to get busier.  Ironically, there is more activity in Lake and Mendocino counties than here in Sonoma,” said Mary Jo Winter, owner of Management Connections in Cloverdale.  “There is interest locally in clerical and some construction-related positions at The Geysers.  Wineries seem to be doing their own staffing internally.  Those in the power industry, mining and manufacturing are beginning to line things up after the first of the year and are planning to put their toes in the hiring water.”

The holiday season is usually a slow time of year for headhunters and placement firms alike, but not this December.  “There is definitely more activity this year,” said David Ohman with Manpower in Santa Rosa.

Still, many people are not working as many hours as they would like.

Four out of five employed Californians usually work full-time. There were more than 1.5 million people who worked part-time involuntarily in the November employment report from the Employment Development Department. These individuals are also known as "part-time for economic reasons.”  They comprised 9.3 percent of all persons at work during the survey week.  The number of people who worked part-time for economic reasons increased by 607,000, or nearly 67 percent, from November 2008.

“I’m still seeing companies continuing to bring in temps in lieu of permanent hires. However, at the same time, there is a trend toward improving margins in pockets of the economy.  Firms today are more well off than they were two years ago, and there is more positive movement in job growth on the industrial side than in office and clerical.  We’re also seeing orders for people in health and human services as well as in employment aid and assistance categories. It appears that the federal stimulus money has trickled down in the form of state grants for workforce investment with new funding for services.”

The real question on the minds of most employment agency managers these days is if this positive uptick will last.  “I hope we’ve finally turned the corner,” said Mary Lynn Bartholomew, manager of Spherion in Santa Rosa.

"The turnaround duration, from when we hear about a new position to when it is filled, is getting shorter. People are getting jobs faster with a lot less shelf life while waiting for openings.  The manufacturing and production sectors are on the upswing.  In short, the future seems to be improving for qualified candidates.”

Nohemi Flores, manager with Star Staffing in Napa, agrees.  “The steady decline in employer activity we normally see at the end of the fourth quarter is not happening this year. Things look promising for 2010.   Employers are waking up with renewed confidence after being in a conservative spending malaise for more than 24 months.

"There is good news in the market for light industrial temporary workers as well as in wine warehousing.  While staffing is typically a lagging indicator, there is reason for optimism when firms such as IBG get funding.  As a result, projects and orders are coming in as employers make concrete decisions to start hiring again.”