At last, it may be good to be a worker

Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON – Not long ago recruiter Keith Wolf’s corporate clients would have had a month or two to mull over a potential hire.

But with unemployment rate falling near record lows, Wolf now warns companies they’re lucky if they have a couple of weeks to make a decisions. Choose someone and make them as strong an offer as you can — high salary, work from home option, maybe a gym membership — because chances are they’re fielding other offers.

“There’s no doubt about it. It’s as tough a market as I can remember to find talent,” said Wolf, managing director at Houston staffing company Murray Resources, which has clients nationwide. “There are companies that lag behind and still believe it’s an employer-driven market. They find out quickly they’re losing out on candidates.”

As the nation prepares to mark Labor Day, U.S. workers are enjoying one of the best job markets in years following a slow, steady climb from the deep recession that ended in the middle of 2009. The national unemployment rate has slid from a recession peak of 10 percent to 3.9 percent in July, the lowest level in almost two decades after a record 94 straight months of job growth. And where scores of qualified workers once found themselves competing for a single opening, it’s now employers who are struggling, not only to find workers, but also to keep them.

In August, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported that two-thirds of Texas companies surveyed were having difficult hiring and retaining qualified workers. With the state’s unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent and manufacturing output growing, Emily Kerr, a senior economist at the Dallas Fed, warned employers that they face “a tight labor market.”

In Houston, which recently climbed from the worst energy bust in a generation, employers are hiring at the fastest pace in four years as oil prices hover near $70 a barrel and strong state, national and global economies — the markets for petroleum and other products — provide solid support. The region’s unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in July, down from a recent peak of nearly 6 percent in July 2016.

Fderal tax cuts and increased government spending, meanwhile, are adding more fuel to an economy firing on all cylinders. Economists project that job growth is only going to continue and the labor market is only going to get tighter over the next 18 months.

“[The U.S. economy] is now in hyper-drive because of the fiscal stimulus,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, the economic research and forecasting unit of the bond rating agency. “In peace time, we’ve never seen this type of employment [level].”

The economic expansion marked its ninth anniversary in June and if it continues, as economists predict, it will become the longest in post-World War II history, surpassing the technology-driven expansion of the 1990s, which lasted 10 years.

The benefits of this near-record stretch of economic growth are reaching into all segments of American society. In July, unemployment among African-Americans fell to 6.6 percent, down from 7.4 percent a year ago and a recession peak of nearly 17 percent, according to the Labor Department. Joblessness among workers without high school diplomas has plunged to 5.1 from 7 percent last year and nearly 16 percent in February 2010. Youth unemployment, often the most intractable, has fallen by more half since peaking above 27 percent in October 2010 to about 13 percent in July.

That has left employers across all sectors of the Texas economy, from construction and trucking to health care and technology, struggling to find workers, analysts say. A recent survey by the national trade group Associated General Contractors found that nearly four out of every five Houston construction firms are having trouble finding and hiring workers.

Surveys of service sector companies and manufacturers by the Dallas Fed found similar situations. Three out of four manufacturers also said they couldn’t easily find workers and nearly two of three said they couldn’t attract qualified applicants even after offering higher wages and better benefits. Many said they were hiring less qualified candidates, training them and hoping that they will stick around.

The German chemical company BASF has invested $1 million to fund a training program at a local community college to feed its Freeport petrochemical plant with qualified workers. But managers there said that experienced workers with technical skills such as welding are constantly poached by competitors offering higher salaries.

It’s happening so frequently that Chris Witte, a senior vice president who oversees the Freeport complex, said he has considered offering bonuses to new workers that would only be paid if they stayed on for an agreed upon period of time.

“We do see a good bit of churn in the key crafts,” he said. “We keep a real good pulse on what the market is paying.”

At Himalaya Restaurant & Catering in Houston, where a “Help Wanted” sign in Spanish and English hangs in a window, owner and chef Kaiser Lashkari shields the identities of his sous-chefs and other kitchen staff out of fear they will be hired away by other restaurants. He has three job openings now, but filling them during this period of low unemployment has proved a challenge.

“It has not been easy. I won’t say it’s hard, but it has not been easy,” Lashkari said. “We’re constantly looking for quality people who will stick and stay.”

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