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Job Picture in County: Either Feast or Famine

April 07, 1985|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

The recruiter's face brightened as a likely prospect approached. "You bet we've got jobs at Hughes," said Paula Whalley, who represented the aerospace giant's Fullerton operation at a recent high-tech job fair in Costa Mesa. "We've got 500 to 600 openings. What sort of work are you looking for?"

Meanwhile, that same afternoon, workers at Smith International Inc. were preparing to leave their spacious Newport Beach headquarters for smaller, less opulent offices nearby. With the persistent worldwide oil glut erasing much of the demand for its oil drilling equipment, Smith has axed more than 800 workers from its payrolls since the beginning of the year.

Those two extremes tell the employment story in Orange County.

Amid one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation--it stood at 3.8% in February--more than 1,400 workers were laid off in selected Orange County businesses in the first three months of 1985. And as newspaper headlines tell of dismissals at such venerable county employers as UCI Medical Center, Apple Computer Inc. and Warner-Lambert Co., classified advertising sections are jammed with pleas for engineers of all stripes, clerical workers and minimum-wage restaurant workers.

"Basically the layoffs are isolated to individual plants or due to the oil glut," explained Mark Baldassare, an associate professor of social ecology at UC Irvine. "And despite the loss of jobs in those areas, there's been an unbelievable growth in high-tech office work, aerospace and defense."

Added Ray Catalano, another professor of social ecology at UCI: "Every community has businesses from the growing and shrinking industries of the economy. We're just lucky enough to have more growth industries than declining industries."

Shift Toward Services

Orange County's employment picture offers one of the best examples of the nationwide shift away from a manufacturing-based, factory-run economy and toward a service- and technology-driven market system. And Orange County, blessed as it is by a warm climate, miles of beaches and proximity to the Los Angeles metropolitan center, has managed to capture more than its fair share of the emerging, fast-growth businesses.

Fueled to a large degree by increased defense spending, a proliferation of high-technology companies and a thriving services industry (notably restaurants and financial institutions), Orange County's economy added nearly 72,000 jobs last year, swelling the number of employed residents to a record 1.27 million. The average job growth rate was a torrid 8% for the year and hit an annualized peak of 10% during the summer months.

The fact that Orange County's economy is dominated by growth industries--several defense contractors are among the five largest employers--is not the only reason its unemployment rate is usually substantially lower than the state's and that of neighboring Los Angeles County.

Another important factor in the low unemployment rate, analysts note, is the county's relatively young and affluent population. Because younger people are often more willing and able to move when their jobs force a relocation, they don't become unemployment statistics, observed Larry Kimball, director of the UCLA Business Forecast.

Furthermore, Kimball noted, it's difficult to pay the rent or mortgage in an area with high housing costs, such as Orange County, without a job, a factor that probably leads the long-term unemployed to leave the county and its jobless rolls after a few months of futile job searching.

To a great extent, the growing payrolls of such defense contractors as McDonnell Douglas Corp., Northrop Corp., Hughes Aircraft Co. and Ford Aerospace & Communications Corp. have softened the impact of the layoffs at other companies.

A Hughes spokesman reports that the company has picked up electronics assemblers let go in February from Apple Computer's Garden Grove plant and has openings for many more assembly line workers. And Ford Aerospace's aeroneutronics division in Newport Beach has hired engineers laid off by Fluor Corp., the engineering and construction company whose fortunes have plummeted because of the oil glut.

"We're glad to pick up the laid off," the Hughes spokesman said. "And if the companies that have been doing the laying off had asked us, we probably could have hired even more."

Indeed, finding qualified workers has become one of the biggest headaches for many Orange County companies.

Burgeoning defense spending, as well as the exploding demand for the innovative, high-technology communications, medical and electronic products designed and manufactured in the county, have led to the persistent, and in some cases worsening, dearth of engineers.

The competition for qualified electrical, computer and systems engineers has grown so intense that companies have resumed offering bounties to their employees for bringing friends into the business.

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