Temp-to-full time remains tentative; looking for a trend

NORTH BAY — Staffing firms in the North Bay are reporting mixed results on the overall North Bay job market amid tepid confidence from employers, many of whom are increasing temporary staffing but remain reluctant to bring on full-time hires.

While unemployment rates move only incrementally, some sectors of the North Bay have seen growth while others remain flat.

Still, Sonoma-based Nelson Family of Companies recently reported a 72 percent increase in revenue in the second quarter compared to last year, and a 53 percent increase in revenue for the first half of 2010 compared to last year.

A spokeswoman said such an increase is typically indicative of a rebounding jobs picture.

“Everything seems to be looking up, and we’re not seeing any indication that it’s letting up anytime soon,” spokeswoman Courtney Dickson said. “Staffing companies get hit hard during a recession, but often we’re the first to see an increase.”

She added that Nelson has seen increased temporary hiring in areas that previously were slower to recover, such as clerical and administrative and executive administration, while industries such as light industrial and manufacturing continue to see increases in both temporary hires and temp hires becoming full-time employees. That was particularly the case in Marin, she said. Sonoma County has had a stronger uptick in manufacturing and light industrial.

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David Ohman, branch manager for Manpower in Santa Rosa cautioned that while there may be a sense that the worst is over, the proverbial corner on the jobs market has not yet been turned.

“We had a strong second quarter locally,” he said, “but we’ve seen somewhat of a plateau. Things are still improved year over year, but we’re not seeing the continued growth we saw in the first quarter.”

The good news, he said, “It hasn’t turned downward.”

Manpower, a publicly traded company, has branches worldwide and reported a 35 percent increase in revenue year over year for the second quarter. But Mr. Ohman said that while the increase is positive, it isn’t necessarily reflective of the local environment.

“The fact that temp companies are doing fine – and Manpower is a bellwether of that – generally means the improvement is a predecessor for the general cycle,” Mr. Ohman said. This may not be a typical cycle, he said.  “We’ve seen the first part of it. Whether that’s followed remains to be seen.

“You’re seeing that the job prospects and jobs picture don’t appear to be improving for permanent jobs, for many different reasons,” he continued. “Manpower saw 25 percent growth, that’s very strong year over year, and that is reflective of improved conditions for temporary labor providers, but companies are still skeptical and that is showing up in the ledgers.”

Star Staffing, which has branches in Sonoma, Petaluma, Healdsburg, Napa, Fairfield and Ukiah, said it too has seen an increase in revenue and hires over the past year.

Despite that increase and despite being a typical indication of employer confidence, that confidence is still tentative, said Nicole Smartt, regional account manager for Star.

“We’re up 93-and-a-half percent year to date and are approaching our busy season,” Ms. Smartt said. “Although temporary help ... historically is the first job category to improve at the beginning of an economic recovery, consumer spending is still sluggish.”

In Napa, the picture is mixed as well, according to Jason Lewis, chief financial officer and controller for Alkar.

“Just being in Napa, so much is based on winery-related businesses, and most of those are at 1 to 2 percent growth at best,” Mr. Lewis said.

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“Non-wine sectors have seen fairly decent growth, but wine-related businesses are basically flat. Compared to ’09, things are OK,” he said.

Positive upticks in Napa were seen in clerical positions, he said, which were up by 10 percent to 15 percent.  Alkar’s Fairfield branch, meanwhile, has seen a stronger uptick.

Jill Williams, president of HR Biz Partners in San Rafael, pointed to the recent collaboration between the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster and Wavepoint as a positive development for specialized areas of employment such as tech and solar, which have remained in high demand.

Because SMBC is a coordinator for the North Bay Innovation Hub (iHub), which was recently designated as one of seven such hubs by California, government investment could spur positive job growth.

She also said, overall, employers are feeling better but are far from mollified.

“What I’m seeing is there is some cautious optimism,” she said.