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THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET: LOOKING FOR LIGHT : Waiting for the Thaw : While prospects for well-paid jobs are still dim as companies thin their ranks, there is hope that a slowly growing economy--led by construction and world trade--will bring a pickup in hiring by late next year.

September 20, 1993|Patrick Lee | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the discouraged Southern California job-seeker, it may seem as if the only openings out there are for people who are familiar with the following phrases:

"Do you want fries with that?"

"Paper or plastic?"

"Here's your popcorn and enjoy the movie."

OK, so maybe it's not quite that bad. But one thing is clear: Corporate downsizing, the region's persistent recession and the changing makeup of the California economy are making it harder than ever to find a good job.

And things aren't likely to noticeably improve all that soon--perhaps not until late next year, economists and employment consultants say.

"People are nervous for good reason," said Larry Kimbell, director of the UCLA Business Forecasting Project. "They're afraid of losing their jobs, and many of them will."

The state's unemployment rate in August was 9%, down from a peak of 10% in November, 1992, but well above the national rate of 6.7%. In Los Angeles County, the rate was 8.8%.

The UCLA group predicts that things will get worse for some before they get better. The slump may bottom out in the spring of 1994, followed by the beginnings of a weak recovery.

Even then, substantial sectors of the state economy will continue to bleed jobs--notably aerospace, commercial aviation and high-tech, state and local government and housing and real estate-related industries. Even health care, traditionally a strong area for job growth, will face uncertainty as the industry waits for Washington to formulate its reform policy and implement it.

Once a recovery finally starts, job growth is expected to proceed sluggishly. A forecast by the state Employment Development Department projects that non-farm employment will increase only 5.7% between 1990 and 1997.

"It's very slow," said Jay Horowitz, a research analyst in the EDD's Los Angeles office.

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Two-thirds of Los Angeles-area employers surveyed by Manpower Inc., a temporary-help company, said they have no plans to change their employment levels through September.

"I've seen nothing yet in California, and more specifically in Southern California, that is an indicator to me that things are improving," said Gary Kaplan, head of the Pasadena executive search firm that bears his name.

Still, there are a few glimmers of hope. At Manpower, Chief Executive Mitchell Fromstein reports a pickup in the amount of temporary-help requests. And that's usually a harbinger of permanent hiring.

"I have a feeling that either a bottom has been reached or we're not far away from it in California," he said.

Nationally, economic growth has occurred with little job growth, indicating that U.S. industry is reaping the benefits of layoffs, corporate restructuring and more efficient production.

But there are signs that such productivity-driven growth can't go on forever. "After a while, and that begins about now, output growth translates eventually into job growth," said Stephen Levy, senior economist and director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

One sign: Most respondents to a survey by AppleOne Employment Services said the need for staff downsizing had diminished.

"The two areas that should lead Southern California's turnaround when it happens is residential construction . . . and foreign trade-related stuff, as the Japanese and European economies begin to recover," Levy said.

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For now, only a handful of industries are showing any signs of life.

"Overall, you're still seeing the steady employment decline in Los Angeles County, and also in Orange County," said economist Jack Kyser at the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, a nonprofit job promotion group.

"But there are sectors that are growing and adding jobs year to year, and there are other sectors that are close to hitting bottom," he said.

In Los Angeles County, apparel manufacturing employed 101,400 people in June, an increase of 600 jobs over a year ago, according to the Employment Development Department and the EDC.

Job growth also occurred in services, which cover a wide range of occupations. That sector employed 1.145 million in June, up by 16,900 jobs from a year ago. By far, the single largest share of that growth occurred in motion picture and television production, which surged by 11,800 jobs to 90,000. Other areas showing improvement include health services, tourism (other than hotels) and business services.

Job growth is also taking place in international trade-related businesses. There are no employment figures for this sector specifically, but Kyser reports that two-way trade through the Los Angeles Customs District grew 3.8% in the first six months of the year compared to the same period in 1992, indicating the creation of a "modest number of jobs."

What about construction?

Kyser says the rate of job losses is slowing and by the end of the year could level off.

Where will the new jobs be?

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