The trend is pretty clear here in the valley:
When the economy booms, people flock to the sexier, more lucrative private sector jobs while public agencies struggle to get qualified applicants.
When the economy tanks and the private sector quits hiring, the stability of government work suddenly becomes pretty doggone appealing.
Want evidence? During the recession of the 1990s, government in general continued to hire. Sure, the state made the cities, counties and schools bear the brunt of the hurt. Some programs were eliminated or scaled back. But Stanislaus County continued to grow in population throughout that time. School enrollments continued to rise.
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Law enforcement grew in numbers. Like so many other departments across the nation, the Modesto police took advantage of the federal COPs grant, a Clinton Administration program intended to put more officers onto America's streets. Modesto hired 24 officers over a three-year period (1995-98).
In 1996, 585 people applied to work for the Modesto police. But as we climbed out of the recession on the back of the dot-com economy, those numbers declined: to 463 applicants in 1997, 166 in 1998 and only 98 in 1999.
By 2000, government agencies -- the cities, the county, some school districts -- had trouble filling jobs. They couldn't compete with the private sector in pay and benefits.
Now, some experts say, we're in or are heading into another recession.
If the valley's housing market isn't totally in the gutter, it's right on the edge of the sidewalk next to your Gilton's bin on pickup day.
With gas and food prices rising and credit tightening, people are spending less, which translates to lower sales tax revenues.
Owners of homes built in the last five or so years are having their property values reassessed because their home values have declined so dramatically. Thus, the property tax revenue is declining as well. School enrollments are down.
Needing to cut up to $20 billion, the state again will balance its budget by gutting funding to local governments and schools.
Companies are using hiring freezes and voluntary or forced layoffs to reduce their work forces. Other jobs were outsourced before or about the time this economic downturn began.
So job seekers are again turning to the public sector. But it's different this time around. Local governments aren't hiring, either -- certainly not as much as they did in the 1990s. In fact, they, too, are freezing jobs or sending out layoff notices.
That hasn't discouraged people from applying for government jobs, said Jody Hayes, Stanislaus County's deputy executive officer for human resources.
"We're seeing large numbers of applicants from the real estate industry -- people who are in career changes," Hayes said. They include applicants with master's degrees, who are highly overqualified for the few available entry-level clerk jobs that start at $14 an hour.
"In the last couple of years, we had to start a continuous recruitment process to fill positions of entry-level clerk," Hayes said. "We had to stop that. We have over 500 applicants on an eligibility waiting list for an interview that may never happen."
Many county departments are leaving allocated positions open in order to make budget.
"You may not see headlines that show individuals losing positions, but positions are going unfilled," Hayes said. "Critical positions are going unfilled."
The county's library system will cut 94 part-time jobs.
The Sheriff's Department has 45 openings combined in its operations, adult detention and support divisions. The department received 573 applications in all of 2007. Through the first 4½ months of this year, it's received 581. And they'll compete for only 35 jobs, since 10 positions are frozen.
Likewise, the city of Modesto will not fill vacancies in many departments as it tries to trim $10 million from its budget. Roughly 150 city jobs will go unfilled, including a police lieutenant and 20 other police positions, along with some engineering jobs, said Robin Renwick, the city's personnel director.
"That's about 10 percent of our allocated work force," she said.
Modesto City Schools will eliminate 260 full- or part-time jobs -- 61 of which already are vacant -- as it trims $11.6 million. The cuts include 30 teaching positions, all through retirements or attrition, district human resources manager Chris Flesuras said.
It's enough to make your average job hunter yearn for the good ol' days. But who'd have thought the good ol' days would include the recession years of the 1990s?
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.