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Focused on certain areas; businesses remain very cautious about recovery

NORTH BAY — While unemployment rates remain stubbornly high throughout the state and much of the North Bay, certain sectors are seeing an uptick in hiring, a trend that has evoked some cautious optimism particularly for industrial and manufacturing employers.

Staffing and human resource experts said last week that signs of recovery and eased tensions are afoot as manufacturers see the number of orders increase and as certain niche employers, such as those in tech, green jobs and IT, continue to grow.

That’s not the case, however, with sectors such as administrative, clerical and other office positions, according to David Ohman, branch manager for Sonoma County for Manpower, a world-wide staffing firm that recently acquired Comsys, which specialized in IT, engineering, finance and accounting employment.

“In a normal situation we’d have a very healthy mix of industrial and office positions,” he said. “The scale is tipped toward industrial.”

Although optimistic, many employers are still skeptical about bringing on temporary hires as full-time, Mr. Ohman said, noting the any perceived recovery is barely under way. He said the positive tilt upward started only in mid-to-late February, and employers are still holding out for more sustained growth.

Employers are "going to want to see the recovery have some legs. We have certain clients starting to do capital improvement, which is a good sign. They’re pointing to that as a sign of things turning around.”

Staffing firms are seeing the benefit of that as the pool for workers remains disproportionately higher than available full-time jobs and as those job seekers turn to staffing firms for help.

Earlier this year, the North Bay's largest staffing firm, the Nelson Family of Companies, reported a pickup in first quarter hiring following a difficult 2009.

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Lisa Rogelstad, chief executive officer of Star Staffing, said the trend is nationwide and, based on what they’ve seen, the North Bay is experiencing the same.

“Staffing agencies see upturns in employment first since companies prefer to hire a flexible work force while they watch to make sure that recovery is truly occurring,” Ms. Rogelstad said, noting that Star Staffing has seen an increase of 40 percent in billable hours in the first quarter of this year compared with the first quarter of 2009.

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Added Nicole Smartt, regional account manager for Star Staffing, “With such a high unemployment rate, many people assume that there will be less temp jobs. That’s not the case. We expect to see continued growth in temporary and long-term jobs … as businesses ramp up to meet increases in demand.”

David Israel, a human resources consultant who works with many smaller employers, agreed that employers see temporary hires as a more cost-effective move for the time being. Some of the benefits of temporary hiring include not having to foot the payroll tax, the cost of searching for an employee and potential costs in lost productivity that could stem from temporary workers who end up being a bad fit.

“There’s still a pretty high level of uncertainty among small businesses. Temp agencies are kind of a more viable option for a lot of employers right now,” he said.

Mr. Israel added that highly skilled and educated workers aren’t seeing the same demand, a point echoed by others.

An exception to that, according to San Rafael-based HR Biz Partners CEO Jill Williams, are niche and highly specialized employers, who are seeing growth.  Likewise Manpower’s acquisition points to the same trend, Mr. Ohman said.

In Marin County, Ms. Williams said, much of the tepid confidence among employers is within areas of green technology, solar energy and other specialized fields, although other employers are feeling better than they were.

“Overall, there is a sense of the worst has come, and now a lot of employers are taking a breath and rebuilding,” Ms. Williams said.

As for the administrative staffing, which lags behind other sectors, Mr. Ohman and Ms. Williams both said a lot of those jobs may not come back.

However, Mr. Ohman added, an uptick in the housing market could spur more hiring in that area because it would create opportunities in mortgage and title work, real estate filings and construction permits.

“If you see a substantial growth there, you’ll see more hiring,” he said.

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