Thousands of Mainers find jobs in slowdown

Posted Feb. 16, 2009, at 10:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last month, 15,219 Mainers filed initial claims for unemployment, but at the same time, at least 15,571 were hired for jobs across the state as many employers continue to hire workers in this recession.

“We always hear about the layoffs and the job losses,” said John Richardson, commissioner of Economic and Community Development. “We don’t hear about the job here or two jobs there that are created and people are hired.”

Richardson said even as unemployment rates have increased, Mainers are being hired for a range of jobs.

University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan agrees.

“The measures we usually see are of net job growth,” he said. “That’s where you see that there are fewer people working than there were a year ago.”

According to the Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, some sectors of the economy have continued to add jobs as others are losing. Professional and business services employment was up 1.1 percent from December 2007 to December 2008, the most recent data available, and jobs in education and health services increased 1.6 percent.

“Those are the two sectors that held up pretty well through 2008,” Colgan said, “and if any sectors are going to hold up in 2009, that’s pretty much where it is going to be.”

Overall, nonfarm wage and salary jobs were down by 1.9 percent over that time period. The total number of jobs decreased from 619,800 in December 2007 to 608,100 in December 2008.

David Findlay, chairman of the economics department at Colby College, said in every recession there is some job growth even as there is a net loss of jobs. He said there also has been a change in employment patterns that may mask some of the impact of the recession.

“The labor market now is far more flexible than it was back in ’80-’81,” he said. “So you may have a lot more part-time workers now than you had back in ’80-’81.”

Findlay said he believes the current recession is the worst since the 1980-1981 recession. He said in that recession when employers cut back production, they reduced the size of the work force. He said in this recession some are reducing hours for workers instead of eliminating the job entirely.

“This is a different economy and employers are reacting to it in some different ways than we have seen in the past,” he said.

Findlay and Colgan agree that the stimulus package just approved by Congress will have an impact, but how much of an impact will take awhile to figure out.

“We now know what the stimulus package is going to be, but it will take awhile to figure out what it is going to do,” Colgan said. “For example, there is a set of assumptions on the rate of spending on infrastructure. But we don’t know how long it will really take to get contracts signed and people hired and shovels in the ground.”

The stimulus package also has direct cash payments increases that will have the most immediate impact on the economy, with increased food stamp benefits and unemployment benefits as well as tax credits that are designed to increase consumer spending.

“We have to get spending going again and fix the credit and housing markets,” Findlay said. “That has to be part of fixing all of this.”

State officials are pledging to do all they can to maximize the federal dollars flowing into the state that will top a billion dollars over the next two years.

“We have told agencies to be ready to move and obligate money for projects,” Gov. John Baldacci said. “We have been working on having projects shovel-ready.”

Finance Commissioner Ryan Low said state agencies that would handle contracting, such as road construction and water and sewer infrastructure projects, already are preparing the paperwork needed to obligate the federal funds.

“We wanted to make sure that we had all the steps and the processes in place to handle whatever we get in the package,” he said. “For example, we had talks with our folks in purchasing to see what we can do to expedite processing of contracts while still maintaining adequate oversight.”

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said there also is an effort under way to help the unemployed get hired for the new jobs being created by the stimulus effort. She said her department has created a new jobs Web site, and counselors are trying to match unemployed workers with job training efforts.

“We are looking at ways to make sure that folks are getting whatever kind of training they can get in preparation for the jobs that are coming to the state,” she said.

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