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Low unemployment creates tight market for employees

November 18, 1997

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ For Grover Cobb, the task was to find four full-time waiters or waitresses for The Mariner restaurant in Great Bend. So he advertised for a weekend and kept his fingers crossed.

No one called. Not one in the central Kansas town of 15,000.

``It’s tough in Great Bend,″ said Cobb, The Mariner’s assistant manager.

The jobless rate in Barton County, where Great Bend is located, is just 3 percent. But industry experts and employers say finding qualified workers these days is tough all over.

The growing economy and expanding number of jobs have created a tight job market that makes it difficult for many employers _ from fast food restaurants to large manufacturers like Boeing Co. _ to find workers.

Earlier this month, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned Congress the labor squeeze could soon translate into higher wages and higher prices. The nation’s unemployment rate has hovered below 5 percent since June, hitting a 24-year low of 4.7 percent in October.

In Wichita, that squeeze started with the aircraft industry. More than a year ago, the city’s industrial backbone began growing and companies like Boeing, Raytheon Aircraft Co., Learjet Inc. and Cessna Aircraft Co. needed workers.

Boeing has hired about 3,000 people at its plant in Wichita in the past year, bringing the total to 21,500, and needs still more. Boeing has even brought in about 100 workers from its recently acquired McDonnell Douglas division in Southern California.

``We’re still looking for some mechanics and engineering people,″ said Fred Solis, a Boeing spokesman. ``The competition with all the businesses in town has pretty much stretched the resources locally. We’re still looking in our own back yard, but we’ve had to expand our search as well.″

At Raytheon, finding an engineer can be worth $2,000: Bringing an engineer to the company is worth $1,000, and if the new worker stays for six months, it’s another $1,000. Still, Raytheon has 560 openings, about 100 of which are for engineers.

The problem isn’t limited to the aerospace industry.

Kelly Slack, owner of Slack & Associates, a Wichita employment agency, has noticed fewer calls from job candidates on secretarial, sales and management jobs.

``Six months ago, I may have gotten 20 to 30 phone calls,″ he said of an advertised job. ``Now, I’m lucky to get eight or 10.″

To lure qualified employees, companies are improving benefits or increasing wages, Slack said. As a result, most of the people he hears from are already employed but want to switch to a better or higher-paying job.

Bob Everlanka, president of Remedy, a Houston-based staffing company, specializes in finding employees for other companies. But the tight labor market has business booming for employment agencies _ and Everlanka spends much of his time making sure his own company is adequately staffed.

This month, he was trying to fill three openings while keeping other companies from luring away his employees.

``There are headhunters calling my staff all the time,″ he said.

If finding a permanent employee is hard, temporary seasonal workers can be even harder to locate. Low unemployment is making it hard for retailers to find additional holiday help for the second straight year.

Other employers complain that the job applicants they do get lack necessary training or work skills.

``It’s easy to find someone,″ said Ivan Jenkins, assistant manager for AJ Menswear in Detroit. ``It’s hard to find someone who will work.″