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Crunching the Numbers 

The ever-shifting job market in New Orleans features fewer unemployment claims, hard-to-decipher statistics, and a desperate need to fill key positions.

EMPLOYMENT-FEATURE By David Winkler-Schmidt PHOTO NO. 1 (WAITER) According to surveys of employers in December, 3,200 food service jobs were added to the metro-area job market. PHOTO NO. 2 (ROOFER) Despite a proliferation of job fairs around the state, employers face a harsh reality even when prospective employees show up: providing affordable housing. PHOTO NO. 3 (LRA'S THOMAS WEATHERLY) ÒIn order for the economy to recover, people need to get back and go to work.Ó

Ñ Tom Weatherly, vice president of communications, Louisiana Restaurant Association PULLQUOTE NO. 4 (NURSE) Cynthia Bentley, sub-regional manager of LDOLÕs New Orleans Job Center, says that every day about 200 to 300 people get job referrals from the center, and that there are open positions in most fields and industries including hospitals, clerical, construction, administrative, retail, restaurants and hotels. Stephanie Brownlow loved her job. She worked as the assistant director of development for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) for four years until she was laid off after the storm. With so much uncertainty in the area, she decided to see what else was out there; she drove cross-country to Tacoma, Wash., and began searching for work. She couldn't find anything, so, feeling homesick, she moved into her mother's house in Slidell at the end December. Now, she is hitting the pavement looking for work, and collecting unemployment. Out of necessity, many are using a similar strategy.

"I'm still living out of boxes," says Brownlow, "But at least now I can start looking for a job in my city. It always boils down to my friends and family in Louisiana."

According to the most recent figures, the New Orleans metropolitan area is experiencing 8.2 percent unemployment, up from 5.8 percent in August 2005. That figure seems odd considering that daily employers are posting advertisements promising immediate openings, high wages and bonuses; job fairs are springing up, and the classifieds are thick with potential positions. How could anyone who wants a job not be able to find one? As with everything else in the post-Katrina world, there are mitigating factors, and statistics aren't always as revealing as they seem.

Dino DeMarte and Jenny Lopez crunch unemployment numbers for the Louisiana Department of Labor (LDOL). DeMarte, director of the Research and Statistics section, and Lopez, a labor market analyst, say the latest figures actually reflect a dramatic decrease in the number of unemployment claims. From November 2005 to December 2005, the number of people filing for unemployment compensation in the New Orleans metro area fell from 17.1 percent to 8.2 percent.

They attribute much of that reduction to a change in filing requirements, and not necessarily more people getting work. Because 21 percent of workers in the state filed for unemployment claims following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, LDOL allowed people to file only once to get benefits for the months of September, October and November. After November, claimants had to file weekly to prove eligibility. Across the state, 100,000 fewer people filed for unemployment in December than in November.

"We didn't forecast this happening, but we had a hunch it would," DeMarte explains.

Another factor influencing unemployment statistics is the way they're collected. Prior to Katrina, LDOL considered phone interviews -- surveys conducted to see how many adults living in a household were able and looking for work -- their main source for determining the unemployment rate. That became impossible after Katrina because so many no longer had homes or available phones. LDOL turned to counting the number of claims filed, which isn't as reliable. For example, if a claimant permanently moves out of the metro area, but doesn't change their address, LDOL will continue to count the person as unemployed in the New Orleans area.

Cynthia Bentley, sub-regional manager of LDOL's New Orleans Job Center, says from her experience the numbers should continue to fall. "There's still a lot people still filing claims," reports Bentley, "but more people are being fazed out because they're getting jobs here, or they've relocated and finding jobs there."

Bentley's center daily helps from 200 to 300 people get job referrals. She says there are open positions in most fields and industries including hospitals, clerical, construction, administrative, retail, restaurants and hotels. Lopez concurs with Bentley and reports that according to surveys of employers in December, 2,400 retail jobs, 3,200 food service jobs, 1,700 health-care and social-assistance jobs, and 1,100 civil engineering jobs were added to the metro-area job market.

Besides the local LDOL employment centers, the LDOL Web site (www.laworks.net) can connect job seekers with potential employers, and LDOL has already sponsored more than 80 job fairs around the state and will continue to do so. But as Lopez explains, employers now have the added burden of not only offering lucrative and attractive positions, but also locating employees housing.

"It's not just finding workers," says Lopez. "It's also where can they go after work is over."

Tom Weatherly, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, an organization representing more than 7,000 restaurants in the state, reports that many of his restaurant members are now trying to secure trailers and other places for employees to stay. If there was adequate housing, "we could probably hire another 10,000 people immediately," says Weatherly. "In order for the economy to recover, people need to get back and go to work."

Brownlow would love to return to work. Since she is single and staying with her mom, she doesn't have the additional housing worries that workers with families do: finding schools and daycare for their kids, nearby grocery stores, and medical care facilities. She hasn't received any concrete offers yet, but she is looking and trying to find a job she can dedicate herself to. For Brownlow, it's not just about making money, but fulfilling herself.

"Call me naive, but I still want a job I can love."

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