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WANTED: JOBS - A Telegraph special report

During the first four months this year, Macon native Jennifer Bridger applied for more than 100 jobs.

The 28-year-old lost her sales job in January when retailer Lane Bryant closed its Macon Mall store.

“It’s really a downer,” Bridger said. “I’d been out there looking for so long. You get discouraged.”

Despite all those applications, she got just one interview — with RGIS LLC, an inventory service company — and was hired. She will travel to various retail stores taking inventory of merchandise.

Even though it’s not the full-time employment she had hoped for, Bridger is happy.

“I’m excited about this job,” she said. “It’s part time, but it’s better than doing nothing. I’m really looking forward to doing something different.”

Bridger is one of the fortunate ones. The number of people dealing with unemployment across the state is staggering.

As of March, an estimated 442,758 unemployed Georgians were looking for work, an increase of 64.1 percent compared with March 2008.

During just the first three months of this year, Rheem Manufacturing and Shaw Industries in Baldwin County announced that they would close, affecting a total of about 1,350 workers. The Wal-Mart return center in Bibb County is set to close, sending about 400 workers out the door. T&S Hardwoods in Eatonton is closing and letting about 90 workers go.

The full effect of the job losses hasn’t been felt yet because some of the jobs will be phased out over the year, but that’s more than 1,800 jobs disappearing from just three counties.

The unemployment rate in Middle Georgia declined recently to a preliminary unadjusted rate of 8.2 percent in March, a decrease from 9 percent in February. Still, that was 3 percentage points higher than the rate from March 2008.

The unemployment rate for the state sat at 9.2 percent for March, unchanged from the previous month for the first time in 20 months. For the 17th consecutive month, the state’s rate was above the national average of 8.5 percent.

At this point in the recession, Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said he wasn’t surprised at Georgia’s unemployment rate.

“What I am surprised about is that historically Georgia has been insulated from national recessions in large part, but this time Georgia has been harder hit than some other states,” he said. “I think it’s primarily due to the loss literally of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs throughout the state and the reliance we had on the housing industry.”

Bibb County lost many of its manufacturing jobs several years ago after the Brown & Williamson Tobacco and Keebler plants closed.

Bibb County’s five largest non-government employers at the end of December were The Medical Center of Central Georgia, Geico, Coliseum Medical Centers, Mercer University and Wal-Mart, according to the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

In Houston County, 40 percent of the labor force works for the government, about 47 percent provide services and 12 percent produce goods, according to 2007 data. By comparison, in Peach County, about 29 percent work for the government, 44 percent provide services and 28 percent produce goods.

Middle Georgia has a good mixture of industries, which helps cushion the impact of the recession, Thurmond said.

“What you do have is the (Robins Air Force Base) and the medical facilities, and you have colleges and universities,” he said. “These are the things that have really held up the best during this economy.”

HARD WORK FINDING A JOB

Like Bridger, Ronnie Sleister lost his job in January after he was laid off as an overnight manager from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Greensboro.

The 52-year-old and his wife gave up their apartment and moved in with her parents in Macon right after he lost his job.

“We were pretty sure I wasn’t going to go out the next week and get a job the way things were going,” Sleister said.

He received one month’s severance pay and then unemployment payments after that.

“I worked very hard at trying to get a job,” Sleister said. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had 70-75 applications and résumés out all over Middle Georgia. ... I was getting scared. I really was.”Sleister had few responses, and some said he was overqualified.

He was hired in mid-April as a reactor operator in training at Zschimme & Schwarz U.S. Division, a small chemical manufacturer in Milledgeville. The company makes a variety of fiber lubricants and other products.

“I’m making about two-thirds of what I was making before,” he said. “But the benefits, particularly at my age, is probably more important than the hourly wage.”

Adding to the number of job seekers, many of this year’s college graduates are facing the same hurdles as they embark on a new stage in life.

Employers expect to hire about 22 percent fewer new graduates from the 2009 class than they hired from the class of 2008, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“More than two-thirds of employers said the economic situation forced them to re-evaluate their college hiring plans,” the association’s executive director, Marilyn Mackes, said in a statement.

Also, more than 46 percent of employers said they are “unsure about their hiring plans for fall 2009,” according to the study.

Even students seeking summer jobs are finding the going rough.

Twenty-year-old LaTasha Pryor, a sophomore at Valdosta State University, has applied at a variety of places, including a pharmacy, a day care and retail stores for a summer job. She’s not picky about the type of work.“Anything. I just want a summer job,” said Pryor, who is majoring in English and speech therapy and hopes to teach some day. “I am (worried), because I’m going to be broke this summer. … College is expensive.”

And while Pryor, who is from Macon, could stay in Valdosta and keep her job on campus during the summer, she would rather not.

“I really want to come home to be with my family,” she said.

SOME BUSINESSES STILL HIRING

Despite the depressing unemployment reports, some businesses are looking for workers.

In Twiggs County, 429 people have been hired for the Academy Sports & Outdoors distribution center, and the company’s application process remains open.

“Our work is such that some people come in and it’s not for them. They don’t want to do this type of work,” said Burnie Sloan, director of distribution center operations.

The sporting goods retailer built its million-square-foot center in the Twiggs County Industrial Park North at the Ga. 96 exit off Interstate 16. The center began shipping goods to stores in February.

“From a recruiting and hiring standpoint, very, very seldom will you ever see us where we are not doing some form of active recruiting and hiring,” Sloan said. “We have groups of people (who) start every Monday. Sometimes it’s as few as two or three and other times it may be up to 12 or 15.”

Both The Medical Center of Central Georgia and the Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon have available positions, especially for registered nurses, posted on their Web sites.

Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Research at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, said in April’s Georgia Trend magazine that health care will be one of the better performers this year, due in large part of the aging population.

Also, Geico’s Macon regional office employs more than 4,100 employees, and it is consistently hiring, Shawn Burklin, regional vice president of Geico’s Southeast operations, said in an e-mail.

“We’re proud that Macon’s hometown insurer is able to employ an increasing number of our neighbors,” Burklin said. “As (consumers) choose Geico in higher and higher numbers, we are able to employ more and more Middle Georgians.”

Within two weeks after The Brick on West Hancock Street in Milledgeville began running an advertisement on the restaurant’s Facebook Web page for daytime bartenders, waitresses and hostesses, more than 20 people applied for the jobs, owner Frank Pendergast said.

The eatery is looking for about 10 waitresses and one or two day bartenders.

“The Brick has very little turnover,” Pendergast said. “We are kind of an oddity in the restaurant business, because there’s usually a 100 percent turnover every year.”

The only reason The Brick loses workers is because they graduate, he said. The restaurant is a block away from Georgia College & State University, and most of its 45 to 65 workers, who work various shifts, are students.

While the economy hasn’t caused the restaurant to cut back on the number of workers, it is affecting the business’s bottom line.

The number of customers is down only about 5 percent, but the bigger drop is the amount of money customers are spending, he said.

“And the problem for us is ... the cost of goods is up and minimum wage is going up,” Pendergast said.The minimum wage will increase July 24 to $7.25 an hour from $6.55 an hour.

“We are feeling the squeeze because people are spending less,” Pendergast said. “We are not preaching gloom and doom. We’re going to do the best we can. ... We are fortunate to have the university in Milledgeville. With Rheem closing and Shaw closing, we have seen some major losses in Baldwin County.”

While the workers at those plants might not be his customers, Pendergast said he expects to feel the trickle-down effect in a couple of months.

“I feel the worse is yet to come,” he said. “Now’s the time I’m kind of forced to do my job better. ... We’ll weather through this storm, and we’ll be here on the upside.”

Small businesses such as The Brick, which can react more quickly to the changing economy, may have the upper hand.

If history is a guide, “recovery often started in the more nimble small firm sector,” according to a March newsletter from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The agency does not have the hard data yet to measure the effects of the recession on small businesses.

“Looking forward from this recession, we would expect more entrepreneurship taking place; indeed, it may help lead the economic turnaround,” the newsletter says.

Wherever their search leads them, with employers big or small, job seekers must be flexible these days, Thurmond said.

“You have to broaden your horizons,” he said. “I think the people who will be most successful – not just during this recession but going forward – are the ones who are most adaptable, more flexible to the opportunities that might present themselves.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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