Local unemployment statistics, job fair turnout starting to generate optimism
JANESVILLE Bob Borremans was encouraged by what he didn't see last week outside the Rock County Job Center in Janesville.
There was no line of people waiting to get into the center's semiannual job fair.
"That's a good thing," said Borremans, executive director of Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, which runs the local job center.
Borremans' observations at Wednesday's job fair—attended by about 700 jobseekers and more than 40 area employers—is anecdotal. Past fairs have attracted up to 1,500 people.
"It was a great job fair," he said. "We had one guy come in, get a job and start work later that day. We had seven veterans get job offers and 14 others leave with interviews scheduled."
For more solid evidence of Rock County's economic recovery, Borremans turns to recent employment statistics.
The state Department of Workforce Development said Wednesday that the unemployment rate for the Janesville Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Rock County, fell from 8.9 percent in July to 8.6 percent in August.
In addition, the area's labor force grew in July to its highest level in two years, according to the most recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of people holding jobs reached 73,156, a mark unachieved in two years.
Make no mistake, the local area is still several thousand jobs short of the years before the Great Recession. There still are 3,500 more people unemployed than in October 2006.
Borremans, however, finds solace in the fact that Rock County has added more than 3,500 jobs so far this year.
"We're still struggling, but things appear to be getting better in the Janesville area," he said.
Borremans said workforce growth is significant. In the past, the labor force dipped as people too frustrated by the job landscape stopped looking for work. In doing so, they were not counted in official statistics as being unemployed and in search of work.
"I think people are becoming more confident with how things are looking, and they're re-entering the workforce," Borremans said. "If you ask me to forecast whether that will increase or decrease in the next few months, I think it will improve, but that's pure guesswork on my part."
Optimism on the floor
Kenton Oslowski is one of those displaced workers with more confidence. The 27-year-old hasn't stopped looking for a job since moving to Janesville more than two years ago.
"I am seeing more opportunities, and it seems like there are less people here today," he said Wednesday at the job fair, the third such event he's attended. "I hope my odds are improving."
Wednesday's event included several staffing agencies and institutions of higher learning. It also included several area employers with multiple job openings.
One of those was MPC, a Walworth-based maker of thermoplastic components that is expanding its operation to Janesville and plans to add at least 90 jobs in the next three years. The company is leasing 325,000 square feet at the Helgesen Industrial Center, 2929 Venture Drive.
Amy Hansen, the company's recruitment and development specialist, was manning the company's booth Wednesday, explaining the operation and handing out applications.
She said MPC initially will hire for about 25 positions in Janesville, but internal transfers from the Walworth plant could fill some of those. That still creates jobs openings in the area, she said, and as the Janesville plant moves toward two shifts, each could support 30 production-type jobs.
Hansen reported brisk interest Wednesday for competitively paying jobs that likely won't start until November.
"Some people aren't sure if they want to wait until then for a job, and because we require one or two months of training in Walworth, transportation is an issue for some people," she said.
Elsewhere on the floor, Data Dimensions was taking applications for several data processing and capture positions, and Stoughton Trailers was looking for assemblers, welders, painters, machine operators and quality monitors for its Brodhead and Stoughton facilities.
Skills gap still looms
Several companies were reeling in applications, which begs the question: why the disconnect between employers with jobs to fill and people looking for jobs?
Borremans and others have said it's because today's jobs—whether in manufacturing or other industries—demand more technical skills.
"There are those people who went to school years ago and maybe struggled or maybe just had a high school degree without any interest in going beyond that," he said. "We told them that's what they needed to do to get a good job.
"Now, they are either not hearing us or not believing us when we say you've got to go back for some more training. These days, you just can't do some of the technical manufacturing jobs with a high school degree."
Borremans said conversations with employers generated the sense that candidates came to the fair more job-ready.
Borremans is a fan of short-term, job-specific training, which he said is becoming more accepted and adopted at the technical school level.
"We need to get away from training for occupation and start training for jobs, and we need to get people in and out much sooner," he said. "Employers are also going to have to recognize that there are certain skills their employees need and find ways to train their own.
"The apprenticeship model that many of these companies are adopting works great. They get people working and learning on the job, but they also get them into the classroom periodically to pick up additional skills and knowledge."