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Wednesday, July 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Unemployment rate dips, but many can't find work

Seattle Times business reporter

June job gains


Washington continued a strong recovery in June, outpacing the national growth rate and adding 7,600 new jobs. The Seattle metro area dominated the gains with 6,600 jobs.

The tech-heavy information sector gained 1,400 jobs statewide, most of them in software, according to Roberta Pauer, a regional economist with the state Employment Security Department.

Professional and business services brought 1,900 jobs, followed by construction (700) and manufacturing (500).

The statewide jobless rate dropped to 5.5 percent from 5.6 percent in May. Seattle's unemployment rate sits at 4.7 percent after edging up to 4.9 percent the previous month.

The Seattle metro area still needs an additional 37,700 jobs to reach pre-recession levels, Pauer says.

Washington employers had more than 70,000 job openings in May, but John Brittingham didn't get any of them.

More than a year after he was laid off from AT&T Wireless, the 49-year-old information technology (IT) worker is selling his house in Bothell, scaling back on his family's spending and hoping to stay solvent long enough to begin a third career, this time as a graphic artist.

"It looked fairly promising," he said, explaining the shift. "It looked a lot better than IT."

Brittingham is caught in a pocket of the recovery, still jobless despite 10 months of steady economic growth.

Job vacancies in the state have doubled from October 2003, and yet there are more than 180,500 people in Washington still out of work. The reason? In part, it's a mismatch between the experience job hunters have and the skills employers need.

The good economic news continued in June: Washington gained another 7,600 jobs, while unemployment edged down to 5.5 percent throughout the state, and to 4.7 percent in the Seattle metro area.

Still, it's taking employers in some sectors more than two months to fill a position. Health care had more than 14,000 job vacancies in May, more than a quarter of those for registered nurses, according to a survey released this month by the state Employment Security Department.

The tech industry had the second-highest number of vacancies — nearly 3,600 unfilled software engineering and programming jobs. There also were openings in food prep, retail, construction and truck driving — in all, 70,653 unfilled jobs that month.

So why the gap? Explanations vary, but one theme is constant: Employers say they can't find enough skilled workers.

Bill Gates told educators Monday that Microsoft, which presumably has its pick of top talent, is struggling to find qualified college graduates. Meanwhile, several thousand local Microsoft jobs go unfilled.

Some IT workers laid off during the recession failed to keep their skills current and lost their marketability, recruiters say.

Employers are expanding their job descriptions, asking for a menu of skills that even the most experienced IT workers can't meet. And some companies learned their lessons about hiring too quickly. Now they'd rather leave a job open than put the wrong person in it.

"Our hiring practices are much more thorough than ... what was going on the market five years ago," said Susan Webber, human resources vice president for Concur Technologies, a Redmond software company with 410 employees. Despite needing to hire about 100 people a year, Concur takes about 40 days to fill a position.

"If someone is not aligned with our values, we don't hire them," Webber says. Concur also expects candidates to stay instead of hopping from job to job, and of course it wants people with lots of experience.

Such attitudes are a shift from the fast-growth years, when just about any IT worker with a pulse could find a job. The tech rush lured people from other industries who retrained, gaining enough knowledge to land a job then — but not enough to get them one now.

"People who are entry-level or even mid-level are having a tougher time than the experienced software engineers," said John Marsh, a recruiter for Techlink Northwest, a Bellevue staffing firm.

Brittingham had little trouble finding work in the late 1990s, after he made a midlife career change from merchant seaman to an IT worker. He advanced from installing network cable to systems administrator to developer at AT&T Wireless' Bothell campus.

Yet when his job went to India in 2004 (he trained his replacement), his tech career stalled and never recovered. Starting all over again as a graphic artist may hold more promise, but for now it has put him at a disadvantage in a job market with more experienced players.

"You need experience and the references to get the jobs, and you need the jobs and experience to get the references," he said. "It just hasn't worked so far."

The health-care industry is more desperate than the tech world. Although the sector has more than 14,000 vacancies, three-quarters of them require a certification or license. And while the labor pool is producing plenty of would-be students who'd like to fill those jobs, they're being turned away by overcrowded training programs.

Jeanne Knutzen, CEO of Pace Staffing, finds lab technicians and other auxiliary workers for hospitals and doctors' offices. She predicts the shortage will worsen as baby boomers begin to retire.

"Employers are just waking up to the fact that the recession was just a temporary blip in a real systemic shortage of workers globally."

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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