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Beyond The Official Statistics: People See Dim Job Prospects

May 6, 1993

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (AP) _ Pete Pomeroy squatted over a well-worn lawn mower in the well-worn service bay of the gas station he’s run for 50 years, wrench in hand, head down, thinking how he would describe the jobs outlook in his area.

″No work, not around here,″ he said with finality.

Interviews with people approached at random - some working, some not - in the relatively prosperous Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia tell an unhappy story that belies the optimism of economists about the national labor market.

Pomeroy is working, but barely.

″If it weren’t for these lawn mowers, there wouldn’t be any work,″ he said. After 50 years in business on E. Main Street, he doesn’t pump much gas. Car repair work has disappeared entirely. He’s resigned himself to closing the station, and he doesn’t hold out much hope for the economy at large.

″I don’t see any chance for improvement. Wish I did.″

The Labor Department counts about 8.8 million unemployed people in America, plus another 1.1 million who want to work but have given up the search. There’s no statistical category for people like Pomeroy whose work is withering away.

The national unemployment rate in March was 7.0 percent, down a notch from the start of the year but higher than when the recession officially ended in March 1991.

The Labor Department is due to release its April employment report on Friday, and many economists are predicting it will show a modest gain of about 150,000 jobs nationally, roughly in line with the trend in recent months. The consensus guess by economists is that the jobless rate stayed at 7.0 percent last month, and many predict it will inch gradually lower in the months ahead.

Those statistics suggest a modestly improving labor market, but Greg Sanner, for one, doesn’t want to hear it. A carpenter who hasn’t had steady work for months, Sanner ignores the good-one-day, bad-the-next flow of economic news.

″In my trade, things are going to get worse. I don’t care what the statistics say,″ Sanner, 32, said as he filled out unemployment insurance forms in Winchester, Va.

Sanner makes a union wage of $17 an hour on the days he does work, enough to disqualify him for unemployment benefits if he works just one day a week. He and his wife and two daughters are getting by, but he wishes they could afford to buy a home.

″I’m scared to death to take money out of my savings if I’m going to be out of a job tomorrow,″ he said.

There is no ″if″ for Charles Winkler. He’s been looking for a job since he was mustered out of the Army 11 months ago. He moved to Sterling, Va., a month ago from Hinesville, Ga., where he lived while serving as a communications specialist in a field artillery unit at Fort Stewart.

With his 11 1/2 years of Army experience, including duty in the Persian Gulf, Winkler, 35, figured he could find a job with a telephone company, but that and other plans have fallen flat.

″I’ve seen a lot of ads for jobs around here, but they’re all at minimum wage,″ he said. ″You keep looking, and, if you aren’t there two days ahead of everybody else, you don’t get anything. I keep telling myself I’ve got to keep my sanity.″

Defense cuts are throwing hundreds of thousands of former service members into the civilian economy, creating one of the biggest strains on the job market.

The picture is equally grim for people like Lisa Lynch, a 22-year-old single mother in Leesburg, Va., who talked about her struggle to find secretarial work during a break in a training workshop designed for the long- term unemployed.

Ms. Lynch has been out of work for two years. Although she’s enrolled in the 6-week training workshop, she seems far from optimistic that she’ll soon find work.

″I’m already ready″ for a job, she said. ″I’ve been trying to find work. I get down sometimes because of this. Sometimes I want to give up, but I tell myself, ’Hey, you can’t do that.‴

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