Stanislaus County started 2013 with a slightly sunnier employment picture than a year ago, with more bright spots on the horizon.
Unemployment ticked up in the first month of 2013 to 15.6 percent, but it remained almost a percentage point lower than the same time a year ago (16.7 percent). January, February and March historically have the highest unemployment rates for the year, before the area's strong agriculture and manufacturing industries start their seasons.
Stanislaus County continues to lag behind in the recovery behind the state and nation, where unemployment is at 9.8 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively.
"Year over, things do look better in 2013 than 2012 in several of the sectors," said Nati Martinez, a labor market analyst with the state Employment Development Department. "While month over the arrow maybe creeping up in some industries, if you look at the year over, it goes in the opposite direction and that is the good thing."
This year, some high-profile projects will begin hiring, resulting in thousands of jobs for area residents. The new Amazon distribution centers in Patterson and Tracy, as well as two new specialty hospitals in Modesto, a Blue Diamond plant in Turlock and a prison hospital in Stockton, will open.
Still, Friday's EDD jobs report came out a day after news that the Post Foods plant in Modesto faces closure and the loss of 140 jobs.
"I'm a little concerned that the lingering effects, the hangover of the economic downturn, hasn't really impacted everybody yet," said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance. "I'm a little concerned we'll still see continued fallout from that. Though I am a little encouraged by the level of activity we're seeing and in general an upturn in the other critical areas."
Construction coming back
Two industries that had been hit hard by the recession, construction and trade-transportation-utilities, saw strong year-to-year growth in January. Construction, devastated in the Central Valley after the housing bubble burst, gained 600 jobs from a year ago. There were 900 jobs created in trade, combining retail and wholesale, and a 400-job jump in transportation warehousing.
Warehousing should see another big bump later this year. Amazon's two facilities are expected to hire at least 1,000 workers and be open for business by late August or early September, said Jeff Rowe, director of the Alliance Worknet.
Rowe and Alliance representatives met with Amazon earlier this week to talk about upcoming recruitment and hiring. In the past, the Alliance has helped large corporations such as Grainger in Patterson sort through and filter applicants before opening. But Rowe said Amazon is not seeking similar help.
Instead, all hiring will be handled by the Amazon recruitment team. Every job will be posted and must be applied for online through the Amazon.com website.
"It does not appear they plan to have a traditional type of a job fair," Rowe said. "Online is the only way to apply for a job there."
Rowe said Amazon is expected to begin posting the openings for its fulfillment center associate positions, which will make up the bulk of the warehouse jobs, in late May. The Alliance plans to work with Amazon for some application events in the spring, to allow people without online access to use their computer labs to apply for openings.
Amazon has not confirmed the number of positions it plans to offer, only saying "hundreds," or the salary range for positions.
The company has posted about 10 positions each for the Patterson and Tracy facilities, mostly in higher-level technical areas.
Also currently hiring is Blue Diamond, which will open its new almond processing plant in Turlock this spring with more than 100 employees, and Central Valley Specialty Hospital Inc., which is hiring 150 people for its downtown Modesto long-term acute care and nursing care center opening in April.
In addition, HealthSouth California Real Estate LLC recently submitted a proposal to city officials to build a 70,000-square-foot rehabilitation hospital in north Modesto. It is expected to need 100 to 150 employees.
Bassitt said the potential new job growth in the county does not cancel out the impact of impending cuts, such as those at Post Foods.
"We're grateful we're able to continue to see job creation occurring in the county in different ways, but it is always frustrating and distressing to see us lose some as well," he said.
"We expect (interest) to continue as companies are looking to position themselves for West Coast operations. But we continue to be concerned about limited number of shovel-ready sites and how competitive we'll be."
There will be plenty of competition for the available openings. Stanislaus County had 37,300 unemployed residents in January. Companies regularly receive multiple applications for each opening. Central Valley Specialty Hospital received 900 applications from its first job fair for its 150 positions.
A Modesto HIREvent job fair earlier this month attracted 1,100 attendees to meet with the 15 companies who were hiring. Kathy Caricato, job fair coordinator at HIREvents, said employers seem more serious about hiring — and have more openings — than in the past year. But demand remains high.
"We always have a big turnout in the Central Valley," Caricato said. "It's been a long haul for some of the job seekers out there, I know. But I also know the Central Valley has exciting things going on. Amazon. The correctional health care facility. Down the road, there will be more jobs out there."
HIREvents will have two more job fairs in Modesto this year, on July 23 and Nov. 19, at the Clarion Inn.
Optimism still in the air
Last month at the annual California State University, Stanislaus, student and alumni job fair, job hunters remained optimistic despite the odds of finding work. Some 40 employers, from Target to Stanislaus County Probation and Foster Farms, met with hundreds of potential employees on campus.
Those looking to get hired said they know it takes more work and more skills than before the recession to land a job.
"A bachelor's degree doesn't get you as far as it used to," said Modesto resident Michael Zeiter, who graduated from Stanislaus State in August and has been looking for full-time work since then. The 24-year-old has a degree in business administration and finance, and is considering studying for a master's degree in business administration.
"It's tough. I know the economy has been bad, but I'm still optimistic," he said. "That's why I'm here. I go to as many job fairs as I can. I am just hoping to find something, like everyone here."