|By Sanjay Bhatt, The Seattle
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 26, 2011--Job vacancies in April reached their highest level in three years, with retailers, hotels and restaurants fueling the growth, according to a new state report.
There were more than 60,000 job openings, up 55 percent from a year ago and nearly double the number in spring 2009, the Employment Security Department reported in its twice-yearly job-vacancy survey.
Most openings were for existing positions, but businesses also seemed more confident about their prospects: Nearly 15 percent of the vacancies were newly created positions, compared with 12 percent a year ago and under 3 percent in the spring of 2009.
"This survey shows that employment conditions are gradually improving," Employment Security Commissioner Paul Trause said in a statement.
But since the spring survey, the economy has had a turbulent ride, including a debt crisis and plunging stock markets. There were more unemployed workers in Washington state in July than in April.
Even with the unemployment rate at 9 percent in April, job vacancies were staying open longer.
Experts point to multiple reasons: Openings for registered nurses and software developers -- two job categories with high vacancies -- require specialized knowledge that most unemployed workers don't have.
In addition, many of the job openings offer low wages. While the state didn't release wage data on Thursday, past surveys have found that one-quarter to nearly half the open jobs pay less than $10 an hour -- which for some jobless workers is less than they're receiving in unemployment benefits.
Education isn't necessarily a barrier: Less than half of the job openings in the state's spring survey required more than a high-school degree. Greg Morgan, an Employment Security economist who wrote the report, said the high number of openings in food-service, retail and office jobs likely result from high turnover and employers' beefing up before summer.
Anthony Anton, president and chief executive of the Washington Restaurant Association, said the pickup in hiring in April was short-lived. Since the spring, the industry has trimmed payrolls as the economy slowed down, he said.
Still, some hospitality businesses continue to hire by word of mouth. Hotel 1000, a luxury hotel in downtown Seattle, has expanded its staff over the past year and plans to hire more housekeepers and valet attendants, said general manager Dennis Fitzpatrick.
Both occupancy rates and the hotel's restaurant and banquet business are expected to keep improving this year, he said.
The state survey also found significant growth in job openings for truck drivers, warehouse workers, tellers, hairdressers, home health aides and financial managers.
Jim Tutton, vice president of the Washington Trucking Associations, said lots of truck drivers lost their jobs in the Great Recession and have moved on to other types of work. As the economy recovers, there's a shortage of truck drivers to deliver goods, he said.
"Trying to find good quality drivers becomes very difficult," he said.
Companies with fewer than 20 employees were responsible for most of the growth in job openings over the year.
"The small businesses really do keep humming along and keep us afloat as an economy," said Marlena Sessions, CEO of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County. "It's a great thing for job seekers. They can see things are starting to come back."
The council plans to focus some of its $22 million in federal job-training grants on programs geared toward jobs in health care, manufacturing and transportation/logistics.
A recent study by the council found that these areas will be facing a shortage of home health aides, registered nurses, medical scientists, mechanical engineers and truck drivers.
Until more workers have the skills, licenses and experience for these jobs, vacancies will linger.
"Sadly, we're coming out of this recession one person at a time, one job at a time," Sessions said.
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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