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Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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State steadily recouping lost jobs

By Shirleen Holt
Seattle Times business reporter

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tech worker Ted Garwood, 51, has finally found work in his field at Qpass, a Seattle software company. He spent the past few years working in assorted jobs and updating his computer skills.
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Ted Garwood has a job.

It took 2½ years of sending out résumés and teaching himself new computer skills so he'd stay marketable. But today, the 51-year-old from Bothell holds roughly the same information-technology job he had before the economic recession, and he's earning almost as much.

Others are seeing similarly encouraging signs. The slumbering job market is reawakening. Companies are hiring again. Desperate job seekers, some of whom rode out the recession doing low-wage work, are returning to their professions.

"We've definitely seen an improvement in the job market over the last year or more," said Melissa Acton, co-founder of Chameleon Technologies, a Kirkland firm that specializes in finding jobs for tech workers. "Right now, we're probably working on 50-plus job openings."

Employment figures released yesterday confirm the optimism.

The state gained 2,100 jobs in May, while the unemployment rate dropped to a seasonally adjusted 6.1 percent, down from April's 6.3 percent. The U.S. jobless rate stayed constant at 5.6 percent.

The jobs picture by the numbers


2,100: jobs gained in state in past month.

85,200: jobs lost in state from January 2001 to June 2003.

53,600: jobs regained in state since June 2003.

Although Washington saw bigger job growth in March and April, when it gained a respective 8,200 and 7,400 jobs, the overall improvement points to a solid recovery, state economists say.

Of the 85,200 jobs the state lost between January 2001 and June 2003, the labor market has regained 53,600. It needs about 31,000 more to get back to pre-recession levels, according to the state Employment Security Department.

The largest gains have come in service industries, a broad swath of the labor market that includes hospitality, finance and information technology. Combined, service industries not only recouped the jobs lost during the recession, but added another 35,000.

Some of those jobs are in the IT sector, though few appear to offer the kinds of salaries seen during the economic bubble.

"The offers I am making now for software engineers are nowhere near their peak," said a 52-year-old recruiter from Poulsbo. "And there seems to be an overall adjustment to the wages in the market."

The recruiter asked not to be identified because until recently he was a job-seeker himself, and his new income is dramatically less than his old salary.

Despite 20 years in the staffing business and an MBA from the University of Washington, the recruiter spent three years doing odd jobs, including working as a computer technician (for $12 an hour), a health-club attendant ($10 an hour) and a security guard ($10 an hour).

When he was offered a temporary recruiting gig at a Fortune 500 company, he gratefully accepted.

"I am personally 50 percent below my (salary) peak, but I am so thrilled to get that," he said.

Garwood, the tech worker from Bothell, also spent some of the recession doing side jobs. Before landing a full-time position with the Seattle software company Qpass in October, Garwood painted houses, took a part-time gig doing electrical work, and developed pastureland for horses.

He may have had an advantage over other jobless, middle-aged IT workers that helped him re-enter the tech market at almost the same salary he earned during the bubble years. Garwood continued to brush up on his computer skills, taking online courses and even installing a Linux server in his home to better understand the open-source operating system, a rival of Microsoft.

"It helped," he said, "because at this place we've got a couple of hundred servers and they're all running on Red Hat Linux."

While the job market is improving, hiring remains tentative, says Sherri Edwards, a Seattle career coach and trainer.

Many of her clients have applied for jobs that turned out to be filled internally or later withdrawn. Such "dry hiring," as she calls it, is actually a fishing expedition, a chance for companies to gauge the talent in the market and to line up candidates for an eventual hire.

She said companies think they're getting people into a jobs pipeline but they're really just making them angry.

Edwards is advising her clients not to hold out for a job at their old pay level or title, but to take a lower position and work their way back up the ladder.

"There have been jobs available that people could go back to work at a lesser capacity, and in many cases after two or three years would have been back at the level they'd like to be. Their market value has dropped to worse than if they'd have taken the lower paying job."

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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