April 24, 2018
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Mainers ‘hitting the job search hard’

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

OLD TOWN, Maine — Jenny St. Louis, like thousands of other Mainers, needs a job.

Every morning, the 24-year-old Old Town woman scours online job listings, and she visits her local CareerCenter regularly. She mails several resumes and applications a week and follows up with telephone calls.

She is enrolled in a full-time online degree program, studying social services, and in December, she completed a course through Eastern Maine Community College to become a phlebotomist, trained to draw blood for medical purposes.

“I’ve been hitting the job search hard since I finished my course in early December.” she said. “I haven’t been able to find much out there. I’m not just looking in phlebotomy. I’ll take any office-type position I can find.”

St. Louis has been out of work since last February. Her husband, Nicholas, a construction worker with a commercial driver’s license, has been unemployed since September 2008 despite an ongoing search. The couple and their two children, ages 3 and 6, are scraping by on Nicholas’ unemployment check, MaineCare and food stamps. Still, they’re about to have a vehicle repossessed, and their landlord has served an eviction notice demanding $2,000 in back rent.

“I can’t take a $7.50-an-hour job with two children,” she said. “What I’d make in that job is barely going to pay for groceries. We’re making minimum payments on everything we possibly can. I don’t know what else to do.”

With Maine’s unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent, Jenny St. Louis’ situation is becoming all too common. A total of 56,200 Mainers were unemployed in November, up about 12,600 from a year ago, according to the state Department of Labor’s most recent statistics.

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Several employment experts said in interviews they’re seeing record numbers of people in search of everything from help with resumes to enrollment in training programs.

Though some say they are beginning to see signs of a turnaround, there is widespread agreement on one point: In the short term, there just aren’t easy answers for everybody.

“It can be a complex maze,” said state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman of trying to find a job. “There are still jobs out there, but nothing is ever as easy as we hope it is. People are struggling, and we know that.”

Fortman said some of the hardest-hit professions have been construction and manufacturing. Business and service-oriented jobs have been “holding their own,” she said, while the health care field is still seeing openings. The Labor Department lists jobs most in demand.

When the economy goes sour, Fortman said, the best thing a person can do is develop diverse skills. That could involve everything from gaining basic computer skills to delving into a completely new career.

“What this economy has done is push all of us outside out comfort zones and challenged us in ways we didn’t want to be challenged,” Fortman said.

Sarah Joy, branch manager at Bonney Staffing Services’ Bangor office, said she has seen a surge in applications for employment in the past few weeks.

Bonney serves as a liaison between workers and employers for both temporary and permanent positions.

Joy said employers in virtually every industry are receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes for every job they post.

“We’re seeing a lot of unemployed people who are really super-qualified,” she said. “It’s a great market for employers right now.”

April Clark, a vice president of a firm called Manpower, which operates similar to Bonney Staffing, said many employers are having difficulty determining whether to hire, so are hedging their bets with temporary workers.

“They’re not confident enough to hire a new full-time employee, so they tend to call on contingent workers,” Clark said. “We’ve started to see more of that in the past few months, which is very encouraging. It’s a slow creep, but it’s there.”

Eloise Vitelli is director of program and policy development for a training organization called Women, Work and Community. Vitelli said she sees many Mainers “thinking creatively” by either pursuing short-term ways to make money — such as snowplowing or handyman services — or delving into altogether new professions.

“People are putting whatever skills they have to use,” Vitelli said. “That’s fairly typical of Maine.”

One person who has done just that — after receiving business training through Women, Work and Community — is Lindy Howe of Stockholm in Aroostook County.

Howe worked as an education technician in public schools until June 2008, when her contract wasn’t renewed. After recovering from the initial shock of being unemployed, Howe decided to pursue a long-term passion: dog sledding. She founded Heywood Kennel Dogsledding Adventures in 2009.

“It’s taking off like crazy,” Howe said. “It appears that I’m going to make it.”

Asked what advice she has for others, Howe suggested people think carefully about where their interests lie and then pursue them relentlessly.

“If you have a passion, it’s a lot easier to retrain yourself,” she said. “It really can work. There’s support out there.”

One of the employment sectors that state Department of Labor research indicates will grow in the coming years is health care. Phil Johnson, vice president of human resources for Eastern Maine Healthcare System, said that’s true, but it doesn’t mean there are scores of job openings right now.

“With a tough economy, health care is just like any other business,” Johnson said. “People are utilizing health care in a less consistent manner. What happens on the hiring front is that we have to make sure we’re not overhiring.”

The need for health care workers will be pronounced, though, including everything from doctors to the hospital maintenance man. That’s because of an aging population in Maine — including its population of clinical workers.

“You’re bound to see things open up soon,” he said. “Things turn over.”

Among the many organizations trying to aid people in the work force is the Job Corps, a program of the U.S. Department of Labor that trains young people with low incomes for a variety of professions, then helps them to find jobs.

Jon Symonds, work force development director for the Penobscot Job Corps Academy, said that for the first time in recent memory, his organization has a waiting list.

“It’s a great opportunity for anyone who qualifies,” Symonds said. “We encourage young people to get as much training as the can. We’re in a huge paradigm shift in this country, and a lot of the jobs that are gone are not coming back.”

George Miller, 41, of Hampden, a carpenter who has been laid off since September, certainly hopes his job comes back, though dozens of visits to contractors and construction sites have come up empty. With 20 years of experience, he knows he’s qualified to work on just about any building project, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Miller said he’s surviving on unemployment checks and his dwindling savings account.

“I’ve never been laid off for this long,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate this.”

Fortman, the labor commissioner, said people like Miller are perfect candidates for entry into the “green economy,” which she and others hope will become Maine’s job-market savior. With a concerted statewide push to weatherize homes and an aggressive push for growth in wind energy, people with building skills face a distinctive opportunity, Fortman said.

“Some of those opportunities exist now,” she said. “Other things like offshore wind are strong possibilities for the future.”

George Miller said he’s not overly worried about his prospects for the long term, despite his grim situation.

“I’ve just got to look at it from a positive perspective,” he said. “I’ve got food on the table, a roof over my head and the lights are on.”

Others, such as the St. Louis family, might not be so lucky if their situation doesn’t improve soon.

“I’ve applied for a minimum of 20 jobs in the last few weeks,” said Jenny St. Louis. “I haven’t heard back from any of them.”

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