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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK : PARADISE AT A PRICE : There is a price to pay for this paradise, which--with its high housing costs--is one of the most expensive areas in the nation to live.


When Mark Melzer graduated from the University of Michigan in 1980, he could not find work in the recession-racked Midwest. So while visiting his parents in Southern California, he dropped off a few resumes to Orange County architectural firms. Job offers came immediately. A decade later, Melzer is still here working for a Costa Mesa architectural firm designing commercial buildings and golf course clubhouses. And he figures that he will be working in the area for years to come. "The potential is still excellent because of the exceptional growth of the county, combined with the availability of investment capital," he said. To Melzer and thousands of other transplants and natives, Orange County is a workers' paradise whose vigorous and diversified economy offers opportunities galore--from real estate development and high technology to tourism and high finance.

This feeling is reflected in The Times Orange County Poll on workplace issues conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The random telephone survey of 600 workers found that the vast majority of the area's employees are happy with their jobs, more so than workers nationwide.

Most like their jobs so much that, even if they won the lottery and became instant millionaires, they would continue punching a time clock. The Times Poll also found that Orange County is a great place to get ahead. A large majority of workers rate the area as good in providing career opportunities.

"The results reflect the fact that Orange County is a very good place to work," said pollster Baldassare. "Most residents are very satisfied with their current jobs, much more so than is evident on national surveys. Most rate their job security, chance of promotion and benefits very favorably."

There is a price to pay for this paradise, which--with its high housing costs--is one of the most expensive areas in the nation to live. And the traffic congestion, pollution and increasing urbanization detract from the county's attractiveness as a place to work.

Many workers express less than total satisfaction with their wages or salaries. Nearly half of all workers, particularly managers and professionals, must put in overtime to advance. The extra hours sometimes go uncompensated.

Stress is clearly a workplace problem, with more than a quarter of sales and clerical employees complaining of job-related pressures and illnesses. Others worry about physical accidents, toxic chemicals and computer-related health ailments.

One in 10 Orange County workers say they have faced discrimination on the job. The largest number of complaints concerned sexual discrimination or harassment, but others complained about bias because of race, age and sexual orientation.

Drug testing of employees by companies is strongly supported by workers, as are restrictions on smoking. More than a fifth of the respondents said drug and alcohol abuse was a problem in their place of employment. Overall, the Times Poll paints the picture of highly motivated, ambitious workers, happy and secure in their jobs, anxious to advance and willing to labor long hours to grab the brass ring of Orange County-style success.

The survey found that 58% of Orange County workers are very satisfied with their work and 34% moderately satisfied. A similar survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 46% of U.S. employees were very satisfied with their jobs and 40% moderately satisfied.

"As another indication of worker satisfaction in Orange County, two in three say they would continue to work even if they had enough money to live as comfortably as they would like," Baldassare said.

Academicians who study worker behavior say the strong job satisfaction expressed by the majority of Orange County workers is explained in large part by the special nature of the area's business community. They point out that the county is highly entrepreneurial and employs an exceptionally youthful and well-educated work force in predominantly administrative, skilled technical and professional positions.

Of the people who participated in the poll, 60% were in management and administration or professional jobs and another 16% were in technical or skilled work. Only 4% said they were in manual or assembly line work, which tends to be lower paid and more monotonous. About a third of the workers polled said they earned at least $40,000 a year and 16% said they earned $60,000 or more. Also, 69% were 44 years old or younger.

"In general, Orange County tends to have a more affluent population of white-collar workers," said Jone Pearce, associate professor at the UC Irvine Graduate School of Management. "The more educated the worker, the more likely he or she is to be satisfied,"

Well-educated workers tend to be happier with their lot, said Pearce, whose area of study is organizational behavior, including worker attitudes. "They had a chance to make choices as they went along and their job is objectively better measured by pay and challenge."

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