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September 27, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

Job vacancies are up, the employment rate is down, and some of Downtown’s largest employers are gearing up for a flurry of end-of-the-year hiring. Great news if your job is to track employment data. But if your job is still trying to find a job — any job at all — the cheery numbers are just salt in the wound.

Statistically, the Downtown employment picture is starting to look a little less bleak. According to a report released Sept. 1 by the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), job vacancies for the metro area have swelled to 23,800, a 26 percent increase over last year. That translates to 4.4 unemployed people per job opening. Not great, but not nearly as bad as 2009’s ratio of 7.2 people per vacancy. 

And according to Cathy Polasky, the city’s director of economic policy and development, the unemployment rate for Minneapolis dropped to 6.9 percent in July, down from 8.1 percent one year ago. This is a full two points lower than the national unemployment rate, which is stuck at 9.6 percent.

If you trust the stats, fewer people are competing for more jobs, and the big picture’s looking better.

But down in the trenches, it’s the same old misery.

Just ask Mary Linden, a reference librarian at the Central Library who works closely with the branch’s Jobs and Small Business Center. Every Wednesday afternoon, Linden watches as the out-of-work sign up for one-on-one job counseling with agents from Goodwill Easter Seals.

“The sad thing is, we’re seeing the same people month after month after month,” she said. “Some people I’ve seen for over a year. And some people I worked with a couple of years ago aren’t looking anymore. They’re just coming in to use the computers for their own personal satisfaction and not even job searching.

“I’m glad whenever statistics show a positive trend,” Linden added, “but I don’t see that it’s affecting those people who have been coming in here looking for jobs.”

Linden admits that some of the men and women using the library’s job search services face problems independent of the recession: lack of transportation, computer access, child care, or in some cases even a permanent home. But the last two years have had a noticeable impact.

“People are getting more desperate,” she said. At the beginning of the recession, Linden said, it was mostly construction and warehouse supply workers using the jobs center. “But as time has gone on there have been more people in middle management, and also more middle-age and older people, people who have a work record.”

Linden also sees many underemployed people bouncing from one temporary or part-time job to another. DEED’s job vacancy report confirms that of the 23,800 vacancies, 42 percent are for part-time work and 21 percent are for temporary or seasonal work.

Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, also takes the recent, less-than-grim statistics with a grain of salt.

Every year, for the Council’s annual meeting, Grabarksi requests the employee rosters of the top 10 employers Downtown, to gauge the health of the local job market. The result is a rare set of exclusively Downtown-focused data, unadulterated by numbers from the metro area as a whole. “It’s as official as it gets,” Grabarski says.

Looking at the most current list, from February 2010, he estimates that Downtown has suffered a net loss of 10,000 employees since 2008. A large cause of this is what he describes as the highly connected “ecosystem” of Downtown businesses.

“When Target decided a couple of years ago to slow down its growth of construction of new stores, the ecosystem responded immediately with layoffs across the board,” Grabarski said. “Because Downtown is the home of several of the state’s largest construction companies, they’re immediately affected. Downtown is the site of the major architectural firms, and they were immediately affected. And Downtown is the site of some of the largest law firms in the state, and they were affected.”

The good news, though, is that Target — Downtown’s largest employer, staffing just shy of 10,000 workers — is showing signs of growth. According to Grabarski, the lower tiers of the ecosystem “are already responding in kind,” ramping up in anticipation.

Capella University, another top Downtown employer, with 1,550 workers based in its South 6th Street tower, is also expecting to hire in the next few months, plowing ahead with the explosive growth the company’s enjoyed during recent years. Human Resources Director Seth Lockner claims Capella has added a net of 350 positions since 2008 and usually accelerates hiring just before the first quarter begins in January. Currently, he says, the company has between 70 and 120 openings. Over half of these, though, get filled internally.

Robert Half International, a worldwide staffing firm headquartered at 800 Nicollet Mall, is also bullish about the local job market. According to Regional Vice President Jim Kwapick, August has been the office’s biggest month, in terms of permanent placements, in the two years since the recession first reared its head.

While Robert Half mostly places highly specialized talent — IT people, lawyers and accountants — Kwapick says that openings for even the more “vanilla” positions are increasing.

“Specifically, sales assistance, customer service reps. We can’t find enough of those guys,” he said. He cited U.S. Bank and Ameriprise Financial as two other top-ten Downtown employers who are hiring.

But again, tell that to Mary Linden.

“We’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking situations,” she said. “I think it’s worse.”