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As the Economy Cools Off, Job Growth Takes a Breather : But Openings Go Unfilled in Several Fields

September 29, 1985|BILL SING

Ronald A. Franz was a good man to see last year if you wanted engineering job.

The director of personnel resources at Lexar, a Westlake Village telecommunications subsidiary of United Technologies, projected last fall that he might hire as many as 150 new engineers and technical workers in 1985. But business soon tapered off, and Franz sharply curtailed new hiring plans, adding only about 30 engineers and actually laying off other employees.

"It's a totally different labor market than last year," Franz says.

While Franz's hiring cutback may be more severe than that of many employers, his situation does reflect an important reality of Southern California's job outlook: It's not bad, but it was a lot better last year.

The slowing of the economy, structural changes in the job market, corporate belt tightening, layoffs and other factors have prompted analysts and employment professionals to expect only modest job growth over the next few months, in sharp contrast to the strong, upbeat forecasts of one or two years ago.

"This year is going to turn out to be a fairly good year, but not of the magnitude of 1984," says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. He expects 218,500 new jobs to open up this year in Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, compared to 301,000 last year when the economy was booming.

A recent survey by Manpower Inc., the temporary-employment firm, showed that 23% of employers surveyed in Southern California plan to increase staff levels during the fourth quarter this year, while 13% plan to decrease staffing and 62% plan no change. That is markedly worse than the responses given for Manpower's previous survey, when 31% of respondents planned increases in the third quarter, only 7% planned decreases and 58% expected no change.

As for next year, senior economist Philip E. Vincent of First Interstate Bancorp says he expects total Southern California non-agricultural job growth of 3% compared to 3% to 4% this year, although he and other economists say they are beginning to see some signs of a possible pickup in the economy.

Job growth in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with their higher populations and higher living costs, is expected to be relatively slow, while the most vigorous growth will come in less populated Riverside, San Bernardino and northern San Diego counties, where land, labor and housing costs are lower.

"If your business is going to locate in Southern California . . . you can locate with less costs in those areas," Vincent says.

To be sure, the outlook has not worsened everywhere. Employment experts say that in some fields, it's almost a cinch for a qualified person to find a job.

Such is the case in aerospace, where the Reagan Administration's defense buildup this year is having a much greater impact on increasing jobs than in recent years. Until this year, economist Vincent says, much of the defense spending increase went into research and development activities, which tend to create fewer new jobs per dollar of spending than manufacturing. "They (aerospace firms) are now having difficulty finding people," says Sandy Lechtick, chief executive of National Recruiters, a Woodland Hills placement firm specializing in high-tech and aerospace jobs. "The talent pool is small compared to the amount of openings."

Aerospace firms are even complaining of shortages of some types of engineers, skilled craftsmen, technicians and manufacturing specialists, experts say. Economists at the UCLA Business Forecasting Project predict overall aerospace job growth statewide of 3.8% next year, rising to 6.8% in 1987.

Another somewhat surprising area of strength is teaching. Elementary and secondary math and science instructors and bilingual teachers are in great demand, experts say.

"Many math and science teachers have opted out of teaching for more lucrative private-sector jobs," helping create a shortage of such teachers, says Ruth Parsell, acting director of career development at UCLA's Placement and Career Planning Center. Teachers are also in demand because the influx of immigrants and children of Baby Boom parents mean "more new students are coming into the school systems."

Also in demand are temporary employees with office automation skills. Betty Ellsworth, a branch manager at Manpower, says the firm receives more orders for temporaries with office automation skills "than there are workers to fill them."

Service industries such as restaurants, hotels and amusement parks also are showing strong growth, due in part to a surge in tourism. "Last year's Olympics were a very good commercial for tourism in California," says Kyser, the Los Angeles chamber economist, noting the strong attendance at local amusement parks and high occupancy rates at hotels. First Interstate's Vincent predicts that new Southland service jobs will grow 4% next year.

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