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Job Fair Attracts Older Seekers

Economy: Thousand Oaks event draws more midcareer applicants. Fewer companies hiring than in past years.


Bob Lewis has a new home in Thousand Oaks, a wife who works part time as a teacher, two kids in college and multiple car payments.

What the 54-year-old former software salesman doesn't have is a job.

Dressed in a navy blue suit and striped power tie and toting a fresh batch of resumes, Lewis was out to change that fact Wednesday.

He was among about 350 men and women up early for a job fair in Thousand Oaks sponsored by the Conejo Valley Adult School.

In normal times, the job fair would attract a number of entry-level applicants from the adult school, which is run by the Conejo Valley Unified School District, said Loredana Carson, director of corporate training at the school on Old Farm Road.

But with the sagging economy being yanked down even further by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, these aren't normal times, she said.

For starters, only 18 companies signed up for the four-hour job fair, set up in a courtyard between the school's cafeteria and some classrooms. In past years, as many as 25 companies had set up tables and handed out pamphlets, Carson said.

"We had companies that didn't participate because they didn't want to send the wrong message: that they were here hiring while they were also laying people off," Carson said.

The applicant pool has changed as well, she said. Instead of college kids or stay-at-home moms reentering the workplace, many at Wednesday's event jokingly referred to themselves as casualties of the software wars.

Lewis counted himself among them.

Since he lost his job in June selling software out of his home for Minnesota-based Cyntegra, he has gone out on interviews pitting him against 50 other candidates for one job. He has sent hundreds of resumes online. And he has asked advice from friends, most of whom have jobs but know of no openings for him.

"They tell me I am wasting my time coming to this job fair," Lewis said. "But you may pick up one lead here."

'It's a Somber Mood Right Now'

Lewis' story is not surprising to Tom Nikirk, who works in the county department that advises local businesses on how best to weather economic downturns.

In the past six months, Nikirk said, his department has worked with 22 companies that have either closed their doors for good or laid workers off. Nikirk said his office has helped at least 1,500 displaced workers either find jobs or wade through the sometimes complicated paperwork that ensues when someone is let go.

"It's a somber mood right now," Nikirk said. "Compared with two years ago when [the job market] was red hot, the growth rate is much slower. . . . We have a huge variance of professionals. The economy is affecting all industries and even agriculture. The good news is that because Ventura County is not specific to a high-tech industry, it's helped us work well in this slowdown."

State unemployment figures released in September shot up to 5.2%, compared with 4.1% in June.

Nikirk and others watching the county's labor picture will get a better idea of the strength of the local economy Friday.

That is when the state Employment Development Department is expected to release its first tally of unemployment rates since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Dee Johnson, a state labor analyst who studies Ventura County.

At the job fair, Linda Ragsdale and Judy Grodell of Adelphia Communications handed out company literature and cinnamon candy but said there are few openings at the moment.

Although the company is looking mostly for construction and customer-service workers, "most people are coming up to us looking for a high-level position," said Ragsdale, the human resources director for Adelphia's Oxnard office.

'It's Been Difficult'

Two weeks after being laid off from his job in the computer purchasing department at Knurr Inc. in Simi Valley, Ron Preisler, 59, wasn't inclined to be picky.

"It's been difficult, but the alternative is to sit around and do nothing," said Preisler of Thousand Oaks. "But the mitigating circumstance is that there was nothing that I could have done about it."

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