With soaring gas prices and unemployment on the rise, labor experts say they are seeing a different type of labor pool emerge: one that's highly-qualified, competitive and willing to take a pay cut from what they were previously earning.
It's a mix of commuters who no longer want to pay high prices at the pump to work in the Bay Area, experts say, along with an influx of recently laid off workers. Many of those job candidates have long résumés that include experience in the mortgage, title, construction or related industries.
The U.S. economy lost 20,000 jobs in April, the fourth consecutive month of decline, according to recently released figures from the Department of Labor. In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, job cuts have been concentrated largely in industries closely tied to the housing market.
Meanwhile, gas prices jumped to a national record Friday of $3.67 a gallon, and they're much higher locally.
Even for people with degrees or plenty of experience, the valley's job market is extremely competitive now, said Darlamae Shannon, branch manager of staffing firm Manpower in Modesto.
She said about 90 percent of the clients who come to Manpower in search of work are people who live in Stanislaus County but are commuting to the Bay Area for work. They have decided that it is too expensive to continue commuting, she said, and most are willing to accept jobs that pay much less.
"The difference in pay scale is fine because they justify it with the cost of fuel. It is a period of time for reflection, and they are looking at what is important in their lives," Shannon said.
Workers who have been laid off recently are in a similar situation.
The unemployment rate in Stanislaus County has been climbing since the beginning of the year. In March, it rose to the highest figure the
county has recorded in five years, hitting 11.3 percent, according to the state Employment Development Department.
"In general, we're noticing that there's a lot more people in the market looking for work, especially people with experience in title and mortgage companies because of the layoffs in those industries," said Nahrin Jacobs, division director of OfficeTeam in Modesto, a division of Robert Half International.
At the same time, many companies are tightening their belts to cope with the economic downturn and jobs have become increasingly scarce. Rather than hire full-time workers, a number of employers are adding temporary staff to fill empty positions or "project help" for specific undertakings, Jacobs said.
"Even though the company has let people go, they're still looking for interim help for when they get busy," she said. "Then there's special projects. Our area has a lot of agriculture and manufacturing companies. Their peak season is around the corner, and they still need workers."
Some find landing job nearly impossible
Some job seekers have found the employment crunch makes it nearly impossible to find work.
Tim Wylie says he's given up searching because of the current job market, but he still holds onto a "pipe dream" of working closer to his family -- even if it is for a job for which he's overqualified.
Wylie, 36, has worked in the semi-conductor industry in the Bay Area for more than a decade, commuting daily from Modesto. He's tried to find work in Stanislaus County, but has been repeatedly rejected for jobs that are below his current pay grade and skill level.
"I hate to say I'm overqualified, but there are definitely jobs I've applied for -- jobs to do stuff that I've done 10 years ago -- and I haven't gotten calls back," he said.
Those jobs include production work at canneries, manufacturing plants and other industrial sites. Part of the problem is that skills from the semi-conductor field don't always translate to employers in the valley's food processing industry, Wylie said.
The other issues is the sheer number of job candidates.
"For every job, there are 100 people who are trying to do the same thing," he said.
Although it can be frustrating for job seekers who are facing stiff competition for entry-level positions, it can be a boon for employers who can afford to take advantage of the job market.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for those who are prepared for it. This is a growth time. We're not talking about cutbacks, we're talking about expanding business. And you need people to expand your business," said Norm Porges, chief executive officer of Prime Shine Car Wash.
He said he's added a number of highly qualified employees to his staff of about 100, including supervisors and managers.
"We see people who, unfortunately, lost their jobs through layoffs or cutbacks," he said. "All of a sudden, that enriches the work pool."
Porges said businesses can ensure that their high-quality employees won't walk out the door when the economy improves by creating an excellent work environment.
"We market to our employees just as we do to our customers," he said. Employees receive annual statements that show how much they earned, he said, plus all their fringe benefits, such as health insurance, cell phone service or gym memberships.
On the flip side, job seekers need to convince potential employers that they want to stick around for the long haul, Jacobs said.
She recommends that people let employers know they are willing to work hard, even on a temporary basis, to prove that they will be a good fit for the company.
"People have to be competitive, confident with their skills and continue to search," Jacobs said. "They should be assertive, constantly meeting with people and companies, and eventually they will get employers to give them an opportunity."
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.