Job fair struggles to find employers

A stark indication of how tough and uncertain the economy has become can be found in the number of employers committed to attend a major job fair Thursday in Columbus.

A year ago, 90 companies, government agencies and health care facilities crowded the cavernous halls at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.

This year, the Georgia Department of Labor is scrambling to enlist 45 employers to take part in a fair that drew 3,300 job seekers in February 2008.

“It’s just been a slow response,” Dianne Smith-Jenkins, manager of the department’s Columbus Career Center at 700 Veterans Parkway, said Friday.

“Some people are responding by saying they don’t have the funding right now to participate in the job fair,” she said. “And some are saying that they don’t have positions right now, but they should have some coming up in the next couple of months. So I think we’ll see a larger turnout for our next job fair in May.”

The Clear Channel Radio-sponsored job fair taking place 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday is one of three large employee recruiting events held annually in the city. The others are an AUSA job fair at Fort Benning in May and a Veterans of Foreign Wars event in September.

The good news surrounding the fair this week is that all of the employers taking part are expected to have some jobs available.

“That is our goal,” Jenkins said. “If they’re here, they have positions available.”

Staffing agency Spherion is among those who will be meeting and greeting job seekers, hoping to place them in a good-paying position, said Amy Leader, client service supervisor with the agency.

“I know customer service has jobs available, production, accounting, a couple of clerical positions,” she said. “And I’m looking for experienced seamstresses. I need four of those.”

But even staffing agencies are feeling the economic downturn that has prompted companies nationwide to unload several million workers amid slumping sales and revenues.

“There’s definitely fewer jobs right now, but we have had a pretty steady flow,” Leader said of Spherion, which was trying to fill 20 call-center positions Friday at the career center.

The job fair comes with the Columbus metro area unemployment rate reaching 7.7 percent in December, up from 7.3 percent the month before.

The Georgia jobless rate hit 8.1 percent in December, it’s highest point since March 1983. The U.S. rate is 7.2 percent.

The Labor Department noted that the Columbus work force dropped from 122,900 in November to 120,200 in December, a decline of 2,700 jobs.

The work force figure could worsen as more employers trim their staffs in the face of the recession. For example, more than 2,800 Columbus residents filed initial jobless benefit claims in December.

“Typically, January is the high month,” said Ralph Towler, a labor market analyst with the Labor Department’s Atlanta office. “Back in January ’08, you had 1,749 claims and that’s the biggest number you had in the year prior to 2,800 in December.”

A rough 2008

The city certainly has taken its lumps over the past year, with battery manufacturer Panasonic shedding more than 200 jobs in early 2008.

That was followed by Synovus Financial Corp. announcing plans in August to eliminate 230 local positions. At the same time, GreenPoint Mortgage, a Capital One subsidiary, said it was shutting its offices here, throwing more than 220 people out of work.

Another major loss was Bill Heard Enterprises, which went out of business last fall, putting 350 into the local unemployment line.

Legacy Automotive purchased the dealership’s facilities, then hired more than 100 in December.

Already this year, Circuit City and Goody’s clothing stores are conducting going out of business sales, which will hurt the retail job sector.

Then on Thursday, Cessna Aircraft Co. told 100 of its Columbus employees they will be without jobs by the end of March.

The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, meanwhile, forecasts Columbus will lose 1,200 payroll jobs this year as it awaits an employment infusion from Fort Benning’s expansion in 2010 and 2011.

“The immediate prospects for the next couple of quarters are grim. The recession will continue,” Selig Center director Jeff Humphreys, an economist, said during an economic outlook luncheon in early January. “But the prospects for the Columbus region will improve toward the end of 2009.”

The dire projections don’t mean that local residents should give up on hopes for landing a job, or preparing for one that might eventually materialize.

Smith-Jenkins recommends that displaced workers or those feeling uneasy in their current jobs use the Columbus Career Center regularly to create or update resumes and prepare themselves for the future.

The center’s assistance is particularly important for the upcoming job fair, she said.

“We really want people to come in early and go ahead and have that stuff done,” she said. “That way when you go to the job fair, you’re dressed for success, you have your resumes in hand and you’re ready to talk, speak with and do an interview with an employer.”