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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Job Market : OVERVIEW : Nervous Prosperity : Southland's economy keeps booming, but jobs are looking less secure

May 17, 1987|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

Even as the Southern California economy keeps humming along, spurring a continuing boom in employment, this is a time of nervousness for job holders and job hunters alike here.

The same forces imperiling the national economy--trade and budgetary deficits along with the specter of renewed inflation--threaten business locally. What's more, the far-reaching trend of job cutting and corporate restructuring comes amid a flood of qualified baby boomers seeking better opportunities.

"We have never seen a time when as many people are running scared for their jobs," said Larry J. Kimbell, director of UCLA's Business Forecasting Project.

To some extent, the fears are justified. As Kimbell said, "entities that never practiced layoffs"--including IBM, AT&T and some banks--recently pared their work forces.

Robert McCarthy, president of McCarthy Resource Associates in Century City, noted that dominant Southland industries--energy, aerospace, entertainment, health care, financial services and telecommunications-high technology--have suffered from various degrees of upheaval.

Many of those areas still "are not all that healthy," McCarthy said.

"Granted, there is opportunity for good people, but there will be a glut in the hourly ranks," he added.

Particularly threatening to the local economy is the possibility of slowdowns for some aerospace firms and home building, two key industries that have helped boost the job market during the past three years. And with its big stake in foreign trade, Southern California, like the rest of the nation, stands to lose if the current international economic tensions lead to the imposition of trade barriers.

Duane Paul, vice president and senior economist at Bank of America, said: "The greatest risks in the economic environment over the next 18 months all hinge on international trade, the value of dollar and protectionism."

But for now, economists forecast continued employment growth for Southern California and the rest of the state. They point to the diversity of the area's economy as the source of its strength.

For example, Jack A. Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that in the past, aerospace has fueled Southern California's economy. But now, he said, the area is being helped by the improving health of the electronics industry and the apparel business, which is faring better in international competition because of the decline in the dollar's value.

For the same reason, economists say, job growth is expected in such other light-manufacturing industries as paper products, plastics and chemicals.

Most of the area's employment growth, however, is expected to be in the service sector of the economy, a category ranging from busboys to investment bankers and currently accounting for 2.9 million of Los Angeles County's 3.9 million jobs.

For instance, B of A's Paul is forecasting 27,000 new jobs in wholesale and retail trade in Los Angeles County this year; 10,000 in finance, insurance and real estate and 38,000 in other kinds of personal and business services but only 7,000 in manufacturing.

Overall, employment growth this year is expected to be in line with the gains in 1986, when Southern California's work force expanded 3.5% to 6.6 million. In 1986, Los Angeles County gained 108,000 jobs, more than anywhere else in California. Next was San Diego County, with a gain of 38,100, and Orange County was third with an increase of 33,000.

In percentage terms, employment last year grew 2.9% in Los Angeles County, 4.4% in Orange County, 6% in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, 3.6% in San Diego County and 4.8% in Ventura County.

"Once again, job growth in Southern California was stronger in the suburban counties than in Los Angeles County itself," observed Tony Quinn, director of the Office of Economic Research of the state Department of Commerce.

The unemployment rates in Southern California generally have been holding steady or creeping downward in recent months. Los Angeles County's jobless rate was 6.2% in March, while Orange County's rate was 3.3%.

March unemployment rates in other Southern California counties: San Diego, 4.5%; Riverside, 6%; San Bernardino, 5%, and Ventura, 5.6%.

For this spring's crop of college graduates in Southern California, the comparatively strong performance of the local economy is a hopeful sign. In fact, in a year when studies show that the national job market for new graduates is flat at best, some local institutions report stronger demand.

But the United States' uncertain trade relations, particularly with Japan, and other economic worries raise doubts about how long the national and local business expansions can go on. Economists are particularly concerned that if the United States adopts protectionist policies that restrain international trade, local businesses industries that depend on trade--including shipping companies, insurers, port workers, importers and exporters--could be hurt.

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