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December 8, 2008 SECTOR ANALYSIS

Where The Jobs Aren't | Unemployment hits some industries hard, leaves others alone


With the country more or less officially slipping into recession, Central Massachusetts may not be doing as badly as many areas, but it is seeing its share of disappearing jobs. Still, not all industries, and not all communities are created equal.

Between October 2007 and October 2008, the state’s employment dropped 0.6 percent.

Employment fell 1.4 percent in Worcester, Shrewsbury and Westborough, but Framingham and Ayer actually added jobs, growing employment by 0.1 percent each.

Factories Lose Again

The downturn is hitting local industries in a lopsided way. While employment at hospitals rose 5 percent, the already struggling manufacturing industry lost 2.1 percent of its jobs in the government-designated area that includes much of southern Worcester County. Leisure and hospitality was hit even harder in the region, dropping 3.2 percent.

Don Anderson, director of Worcester’s Workforce Central Career Center, said he’s seen an uptick in people using the center’s services, particularly those who worked in mortgage, real estate and construction fields.

Meanwhile, in the area that encompasses much of the northern section of the county, manufacturing employment fell just 1.1 percent over the past year, but anecdotal evidence suggests factory workers there have little reason to celebrate.

William Linnehan, director of the Leominster-based Career Center of North Central Massachusetts, which helps the unemployed find jobs, said staff there have seen many people coming in from plastics factories and other sectors of the manufacturing industry in recent months.

And Linnehan said technicians, engineers and financial professionals, people who rarely set foot in his center a year ago, are now more interested in its resources. He said it may be that they’ve had little success using the accepted professional job-search technique of tapping a personal network.

“Maybe they’ve exhausted all those options,” he said.

In general, Linnehan said, the number of people who have sought the center’s services rose by 170, or 13 percent, between September of 2007 and the same month this year.

In a recent talk on workforce development in Central Massachusetts, Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, noted that manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts dropped during the 2001-2003 recession. Then again, he said, even during the recovery period between 2003 and 2007, the industry continued to decline.

Harrington said he wouldn’t be surprised to see manufacturing employment improve over time, as global trade balances even out, but he said low-skilled line workers won’t be qualified for most of the new jobs that are created. Modern manufacturing facilities, even ones that make the simplest products, use high tech processes, he said. He said he’s visited one Fitchburg plant that is staffed mostly by engineers, sales people and technicians.

“If you look at the staffing structure of this place, it looks like a university,” he said.

Few Paths To Health Careers

Meanwhile, Harrington said, the jump in hospital hiring in the Worcester area is no fluke. But, while health care hiring shows no signs of slowing, regardless of the economy, he said it can be a difficult career to enter. Nurses, hospital technicians and others in the industry need highly specialized formal education, and the programs can be hard to get into.

Anderson said his office spends about 40 percent of its retraining funds helping workers prepare for health care fields. Because the center only offers training that takes a year or less, it mainly prepares people to be nurse aids, medical secretaries, medical coders and clerical employees. Higher paying health care jobs tend to be harder for employers to fill, and for workers to qualify for, he said.

“They usually take an associates or even a higher degree, and that’s really hard to fit into their lives,” he said.

Linnehan said his office has been able to help some former factory workers find jobs in other growth industries like biotechnology, renewable energy and medical device manufacturing. Those sorts of companies value manufacturing experience, he said, and so far many are still hiring.

Ultimately, though, everyone is still waiting to see how economic conditions will play out over time.

Karen DeMichele, president of Savvy Staffing Solutions in Worcester, said we may have to wait a little longer. She said many businesses held off on decisions about layoffs until seeing the results of last month’s elections, and others will continue to avoid announcing layoffs until after the holiday season. Come January, she said, we may have a clearer idea of just how bad things will get. 

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