Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Finding Jobs, But Working For Less Pay

by Anjali Athavaley

Kecia Hawkins used to make $82,000 a year as an accountant for a health insurer before she was laid off two years ago. Earlier this week, the 47-year-old Bronx resident landed a part-time job installing computers. The pay: $10.25 an hour.

Welcome to the job market in New York City, where the burgeoning ranks of the unemployed are grappling with a grim prospect: settling for lower-paying jobs than they once had.

"Really discouraging," Ms. Hawkins said of her job search.

Economists and business leaders are increasingly troubled by a trend in New York City employment statistics: The lion's share of job growth has come in high-wage and low-wage industries, while middle-income work has lagged.

The city's unemployment rate dropped sharply in September to 9.5% from 9.9% in August and 95,800 nonfarm jobs were added in the past year, but economists said that gains since the recession have been concentrated in a handful of industries such as business services, which include high-wage positions at law and consulting firms, and low-skilled jobs in restaurants and retail. Other fast-growing city industries, such as the technology sector, require employees with specialized skills, which many job-seekers lack.

Meanwhile, in New York, jobs in construction and manufacturing—two that economists cite as industries that typically employ middle-income New Yorkers—have declined in the last year. The median salary in New York City was $45,500 in 2011, according to the New York state Department of Labor.

"It's clear that more than in past recoveries the job growth we've seen is weighted toward low-wage industries," said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, which is backed by organized labor. "That contributes to the fact that this is a weak recovery."

Fewer middle-income jobs, he said, "represents a significant change and not a change for the better."

Low-skill industries like retail, restaurants and hotels are expected to increase their share of total employment in the city in the coming years, according to a study released last week by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the business group Partnership for New York City.

"Growth in those sectors will be a plus for helping people move out of poverty and into jobs," said Kathryn Wylde, the partnership's president. But she added that "those will not be the kind of jobs we need to build our middle class and to grow our tax revenues."

Asked about low-wage job growth Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the economic recovery had produced tourism jobs that provide "middle-class" wages and said there have also been "an awful lot of entry-level jobs."

"I never understood the argument that there was something wrong with that," Mr. Bloomberg said. He added: "We're proud of what we're doing here."

The federal and New York state governments don't track what industries hire unemployed people. But some New Yorkers who have lost their jobs said they have seen their salaries fall after getting hired somewhere new.

Willie Martin, 52 years old, was laid off from his position as a school aide at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan last year, a full-time job that paid $14 an hour and offered health benefits. Mr. Martin, who lives in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, now has a temporary job with the city Department of Parks and Recreation paying $9 an hour without benefits. He has adjusted his lifestyle, dining in and cutting out trips to the movies.

"Right now, I just got to make ends meet," said Mr. Martin, who was browsing fliers that advertised job openings at a Workforce1 Career Center in Brooklyn this week. Once his current job ends, he said he'd take "whatever opens up"—even if it means flipping burgers.

"Middle-skill" jobs—generally defined by economists as positions in teaching, construction, and administrative support, to name a few—have had a shrinking share of the nation's employment picture for decades, said Richard Deitz, senior economist and assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the co-author of a recent paper on the issue. The trend is especially pronounced in Greater New York. "The loss of middle-skill jobs has been more severe in the region," he said.

One reason: Rising wages for high-skilled workers—doctors, lawyers and engineers—has fueled growth in the services that they buy: restaurants, retail and child care. Mr. Deitz also said the manufacturing sector was hit hard in the tristate area. He said it was a "more difficult challenge" for middle-skill workers to find new jobs after being laid off.

After Ms. Hawkins lost her accounting job, she signed up for training as a tech-support aide at Per Scholas, a nonprofit in the South Bronx. She also looked for accounting jobs, but the positions she saw required more education than her bachelor's degree.

"I have worked over 20 years," she said. "I have absolutely paid my dues."

Ms. Hawkins took temp jobs this year and then this month interviewed for a seasonal sales job at Macy's Inc. in Yonkers. She was offered a position on the spot that would have paid $8 an hour, she said. She turned it down.

"I would not have enough to pay my mortgage," she said.

Last Wednesday, she found out she got a part-time job with no benefits installing computers in the Bronx. She took it.

"Financially, I've been decimated," she said. But of the new job, she added: "This is something I want to do....It's a start."


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