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National Perspective | EMPLOYMENT

As Olympics Nears, Race Is On to Land Qualified Workers

June 11, 1996|EDITH STANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — From upscale boutiques to fast-food outlets, the signs are everywhere. Some are hand-scribbled on cardboard, others neatly printed on banners. Still more fill roadside displays.

"Help Wanted." "Positions Available." "Now Hiring." "Job Opportunities." "Join Our Team."

Welcome to the Summer of 1996--the time Atlantans have anticipated with excitement and trepidation since September 1990, when this city was proclaimed host to the Centennial Olympic Games.

The new stadium stands ready. The caldron awaits the torch. But qualified workers are in short supply. And the limited labor pool, a problem compounded by an unexplained rise in positive pre-employment drug tests, has left employers scrambling.

Glen Thomas, general manager of G & K Services, an Atlanta uniform-leasing company, knows what it's like to have an expanding business and not be able to find employees. Hoping to add a second shift, Thomas has been interviewing candidates. He has become discouraged.

"Our dilemma is that there are people out there but certainly not the caliber we've been accustomed to," Thomas said, adding that "there has been a large increase in positives on drug and alcohol screening in the last three or four weeks. I have no idea what is causing this."

Rosalind Stone, vice president for Corporate Wellness Inc., which manages drug-free workplace programs, has confirmed that she has seen a greater number of positive drug tests from Atlanta during the last month than in her 15 years in the business.

"Although the specific cause is unclear to us, we are concerned about the relationship between low unemployment and high positive pre-employment drug screens," Stone said. "Although low unemployment in Atlanta may be due to the Olympics, other parts of the country with similar unemployment numbers may soon see high positive rates."

Atlanta's jobless rate is at a 23-year low of 3.5%. By contrast, in July 1984, when Los Angeles hosted the Summer Games, the rate was 8.7%.

The service industry, with jobs that tend to be on the low end of the pay scale, has been hardest hit. Firms are competing not only with each other but with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. With about 40,000 paying jobs, that organization in many cases offers higher salaries, bigger perks and the Olympic experience.

To counteract ACOG's appeal, private industry has become creative. Kroger supermarkets are including $200 bonuses in employment packages. Some fast-food restaurants have raised their pay to $6.25 an hour. Temporary staffing firms are offering medical benefits and paid vacations.

Recruitment has expanded across the Southeast. Students, teachers and school bus drivers, on summer break, are being courted. Some Atlanta hotels are rotating employees in from hotels in other areas of the country.

Randstad Staffing Services, the Olympics staffing sponsor, has interviewed more than 35,000 people. About 12,000 have been hired. The critical shortage Randstad is facing is in bus drivers. Although the firm has hired 2,500, 1,000 more are needed to transport spectators.

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At shopping malls, community centers, Atlanta Braves baseball games and on college campuses, the brightly colored Randstad 32-foot Winnebago has rolled up in search of applicants. Outfitted with testing tables, interview stations and computers, the Winnebago has been the site of 4,000 hires in the past two months.

"The cool part is it goes to people who don't necessarily think about stopping by our branch office," said Debra Drew, director of Olympic programs for Randstad.

Randstad will hold a job fair at 16 Georgia Department of Labor offices Saturday. Anyone who walks in can apply for Olympics work--in some cases at pay far exceeding the amount they receive in jobless benefits.

"It will be a wonderful time for folks to take a break from their job search and come and have a good time and work a little," Drew said.

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