Still, shortage exists for some highly-skilled postions

NORTH BAY -- Employment experts in the North Bay say hiring in the fourth quarter of this year will remain relatively stable but still challenging, as an uncertain market and a slow-paced recovery continue to top the concerns of employers, many of which are still relying on a significant amount of temporary workers.

In the month of August, Sonoma County's unemployment remained high, at 10 percent, while Marin and Napa counties saw only slight improvement in their unemployment rates.

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"There hasn't really been much change," said David Ohman, Santa Rosa branch manager for Manpower, an international staffing company based in Milwaukee. "It's still challenging."

The mixed jobs picture in the North Bay jives with Manpower's national fourth quarter Employment Outlook Survey, which noted that the net employment outlook for Q4 was up 7 percent -- up 6 percent during the same period last year but down from the plus 8 percent during Q3 this year.

"While the outlook is positive overall and marginally ahead of one year at this time, the one point quarter-over-quarter drop is the first decrease, although slight, in nine quarters," the report said.

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Employers, however, may be able to leverage the mixed picture to their advantage, according to Nicole Smartt, vice president and co-owner of Star Staffing, which has branches in Petaluma, Sonoma, Healdsburg, Ukiah and Fairfield. She said Star Staffing has seen significant growth. 

"Uncertainty and financial headwinds contribute to staffing industry growth," she said. "Companies that embrace workforce flexibility and engage staffing firm talent do better economically."

Mr. Ohman said locally Manpower has seen a significant increase in inquiries and walk-ins from people looking for work. That can be interpreted as good news or bad news -- on the one hand, it could mean more confidence in the market by the job seeker. On the other hand, that same job seeker could have exhausted their resources and now need to find some level of employment.

"It amazes me how many new people we get everyday," Mr. Ohman said. "But that only goes so far. You're going to see people getting back into [job seeking] because they're in desperate situations."

Mr. Ohman agreed that the need for contingent labor remained relatively high -- a positive sign in the immediate term but not so much for the long-term unemployed.

"We have seen a lot of demand for just project work, individual projects. They're very short in duration. It's not the kind of business that is really going to make us more successful but it will certainly stem the tide," Mr. Ohman said.

Any sense of recovery, he added, has lessened over the course of the year. "Year-over-year is better for sure, but it has gotten progressively weaker as 2011 has progressed," he said.

Ms. Smartt of Star Staffing said that while overall the employment picture has improved, obstacles still remain.

"Employment costs such as insurance, healthcare, taxes, and benefits are soaring," she said. 

Areas of improvement in the North Bay, she said, included manufacturing, wine and food, health care and technical.

While it's not all bad news, Mr. Ohman said one of the emerging concerns in the employment world was a seeming gap in qualifications -- highly skilled positions are in steep demand while a larger workforce languishes.

"It's very evident that the long-term unemployed have a long road ahead of them. But we still have positions that are difficult to fill -- it's difficult to find people with those skills," he said.