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'Tis the Season 

New Orleans workers and employers discuss the facts and fictions of seasonal employment

Early this summer, 18-year-old Martez Levy attended a presentation organized by JOB 1, the mayor's office of workforce development, about a possible summer job in construction. At the presentation, he learned about the Creole Cottage Project, a grassroots effort designed to teach young people building trades while creating high-quality, affordable single-family homes in the St. Roch neighborhood. Levy cinched a spot on the work crew, went through three weeks of safety training at Jefferson Parish Vocational Tech Center, and worked for four weeks. Under the guidance of project managers who doubled as teachers, he learned how to pour a foundation and how to construct and sheetrock a wall.

"I enjoyed it," says Levy. "I had something to do all summer and stayed out of trouble." He hopes to join another Creole Cottage project construction crew when the group starts a new house this fall. The job paid $6.50 an hour and gave him skills and experience that he thinks will help him find future employment. It also didn't conflict with his pursuit of a GED, which he hopes to complete in December.

Levy's experience fits the paradigm for seasonal student jobs, in which young people gain useful job experience and training after school or during summer vacation. But much of New Orleans' non-student economy is seasonal, too, in the sense that many individuals see their employment drop or even disappear during certain months of the calendar year. Those people don't necessarily turn up on the unemployment rolls or in the Department of Labor's household survey of non-farm employment -- the two key measures by which the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the health of the workforce.

According to Louisiana Department of Labor market specialists Patty Lopez and Lytoshia Thompson, construction, education, retail trade and accommodation are the four most "seasonal" industries in the New Orleans area. Traditional construction jobs fall off during the rainy, cold weather months, says Lopez, while education is a field of steady employment that is naturally seasonal because of the academic year. A historical survey of the accommodation industry shows that this industry is strongest from January to June, declining until the cooler weather -- and conventions -- return in October. The holidays aren't necessarily good for the hoteliers, but they give a bump to restaurants, which experience a surge of business from office parties and holiday gatherings. Finally, retail outlets employ higher numbers in the period between back-to-school and the first of the year, declining steadily after that.

A Gypsy Economy?

Bonnie Helmker can get through June, July and August with a skeleton staff. Come October, however, the general manager of Freeman Decorating will need a construction crew of 500, plus an untold number of temps. And she will need them in a hurry.

Freeman is one of two national exhibit-building companies with an office in New Orleans. These companies, and several from out of town, transform the Morial Convention Center from a blank slate into a glittering stage set for TV shows, medical devices or new cars, depending on the convention. The company also works in smaller venues, such as convention hotels.

Because Freeman is a national company, it can also call in employees from other offices and ship work crews from New Orleans to distant locations. Last January, for instance, Helmker's office sent a crew of 40 to work on an exhibit in Las Vegas. By the same token, Helmker sometimes needs to call in extra troops. Working with the local carpenters' and service employees' unions, she was able to reach out to labor pools from as far away as Texas and Florida to fill her needs for a convention that had to be set up within a tight, two-and-a-half-day window last May.

"You hear the saying, 'The show must go on,'" says Ivy Gaudet, business agent for Carpenters' Union Local 100. "Well, that's it exactly it. If the show opens at 12 o'clock, they've got to have it set up."

By operating as a sort of job bank and referral service for carpenters, Gaudet is a key part of Helmker's operation. Traditional contractors and construction companies call Gaudet's office, as do exhibit companies like Freeman and local competitor GES. Searching through his file of "not working" union members, Gaudet does his best to match the skills requested to available personnel.

How Important is Tourism?

Beverly Gianna, Vice President of Communications and Community Relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors' Bureau, says that New Orleans had a record-breaking 8.5 million visitors in 2003. As of June 2004, 69,500 people, or 11.3 percent of the workforce, were employed in the hospitality "supersector" in greater New Orleans.

The peak period for conventions and tourism is traditionally mid-September to mid-June, though that picture may be changing somewhat. June 2004 brought an expected flurry of small medical conventions to the city, and July's Essence Music Festival brought an estimated 228,000 visitors into town this summer.

Even without a seeming rise in summer tourism, however, Gianna wonders whether the idea that New Orleans' tourism economy is "seasonal" isn't a bit overblown. "I think it's more that, during the summer, the hotels and some of the restaurants will have their employees take their vacation time," says Gianna, who adds that hospitality businesses frequently take advantage of the lull in business to carry out renovation projects.

Charlee Williamson, executive vice president of Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, corroborates that view. Asked whether the Brennan group lays off employees during the slow months of summer, Williamson responds, "Never." However, the company's restaurants don't necessarily rehire when they lose staff members after Jazz Fest in the spring. Several of the restaurant's staff members are also university students, says Williamson, so the slow summer season suits their desire to go home or travel during the academic break. Other year-round employees are encouraged to take their vacations during the summer.

White-tablecloth restaurants as a whole tend to suffer when convention visitors and individuals traveling on expense accounts leave town, she says. But it's not only the drop in out-of-town guests that hurts, stresses Williamson; each of the Ralph Brennan restaurants is affected by the departure of locals who leave for their summer vacations. Her observation underscores the fact that the restaurant business here operates exactly at odds with the rest of the country. In all but the hot-weather states of the Deep South, restaurants tend to expand operations and take on additional help to accommodate increased traffic during the summer.

The Sports Effect

The New Orleans Superdome, which also provides staff for the New Orleans Arena, maintains a staff list of 2,500 employees. The peak time for actually using those employees, however, is definitely between September and March.

Two months before Essence Festival, Superdome human resources director Celeste Hayman is already looking to replenish her supply of labor -- people who will be available to take tickets, park cars, usher, and work as part-time security during the football and basketball seasons. Every year, she loses lots of first-year people who aren't used to the schedule, she says. At the same time, she has on-call staff who have worked with the Superdome for more than 25 years.

The same is true of smaller enterprises, such as City Park. Between August and December, City Park takes on about 60 part-time employees, many of them students and older, semi-retired workers. Early in the fall, they fill needs at Tad Gormley Stadium during the football season. Then, in November, they switch into various roles with Celebration in the Oaks, acting as everything from cashiers to concessions operators.

Education as a Seasonal Job

Any metropolitan area with a big school system is going to see a large amount of seasonal employment. And New Orleans, with four universities in addition to a 78,000-student public school system -- and untold numbers of private school students -- is no exception.

Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, says that year-round employment opportunities have been rising steadily for New Orleans teachers since the adoption of high-stakes LEAP testing six years ago. That's because the New Orleans Public School system has increasingly added summer help sessions for students who've done poorly on LEAP.

Mitchell would like to see more employment for her members, but she'd really like to see it in the form of fully paid staff development days for her union's members. She lauds the fact that the district has added three fully paid staff development days to its schedule, but says her eventual goal is much higher: a full two weeks of fully paid professional development for classroom teachers each summer.

Professional development won't necessarily bridge the gap for the numbers of school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff who find themselves without their regular school job in the summer. For them, it's time to seek out specifically summer employment, such as work in one of the numerous summer camp programs sponsored by NORD, churches and private groups.

One place that helps fill the gap for school employees -- and students -- during the summer months is Six Flags, which adds approximately 1,000 staff members during its March-to-October season. "It's petty interesting to see teachers and students working alongside one another," says Ann Wills, public relations manager for Six Flags New Orleans. The facility hires students age 16 and above as well as a mix of teachers and older, semi-retired or retired workers to work full- and part-time each year. Every spring, Six Flags reaches out to staff from the previous summer in hopes of bringing as many experienced workers back in as possible, says Wills. Peak season for the park corresponds to school vacation time -- mid-June to mid-August -- making it easy to keep staffing in balance, she says.

"Seasonality" Just One Part of the Economy

Tommy Kurtz of Greater New Orleans Inc. (formerly MetroVision and The Chamber) points out that the year-round, stable jobs his organization tends to pursue have a "multiplier effect." Each job in the oil and gas sector, for instance, supports seven jobs in other aspects of the economy. His group also finds that oil and gas runs neck-and-neck with the tourism industry as the leading generator of local jobs. GNO Inc. is actively pursuing enterprises that can diversify the local picture, such as biotech companies, health care and shipbuilding, says Kurtz. But it's also pursuing the filmmaking industry, another enterprise that is not so much seasonal as it is episodic. As long as musicians can book summer gigs abroad and street performers can gain better tips in cooler climates, there will be a visible (and audible) absence in the local economy during the summer. As long as we have Jazz Fest, scores of freelance sound technicians, folklore specialists and craft booth organizers will flock to temporary employment during the festival planning months. The local economy, however, may be less about famine than flexibility.

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