Janesville75.6°

Jobless students finding they might stay that way

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Todd Mishler
June 24, 2010
— In a weak economy that has many adults struggling to make ends meet, students who aren’t already working are being squeezed out of the summer job market.

Cautious employers remain reluctant to hire because, in part, of an increase in the minimum wage. Older workers are staying in jobs longer or seeking jobs that typically went to young people, employment officials said.


“We have so many people who are unemployed or are running out of unemployment compensation, so you have a lot of older people applying for jobs that traditionally went to younger people, like in park service,” said Bob Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board. “The overall job market is difficult right now, and younger people are facing more competition.”


Unemployment remains high in southern Wisconsin, although the latest numbers show improvement. In April, Rock County’s unemployment rate was 11 percent, down from 12.8 percent the previous month. Walworth County’s rate dropped from 10.8 percent to 8.7 percent. Beloit had the worst jobless rate in the state at 16.8 percent, down from 18.3 percent. Janesville’s rate dropped 1.7 percent to 11.3 percent, the sixth-worst in the state.


A $500,000 six-county grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided some help in 2009, Borremans said, but that money isn’t available this summer.


“We were able to find work for about 150 people last summer with the ARRA funds, which isn’t a lot but it’s more than probably the last 10 years,” Borremans said


This summer, some local employers that rely heavily on seasonal help say a lack of turnover means fewer jobs are available for students.


Ross Thomas, general manager of Culver’s on Milwaukee Road in Beloit, said his restaurant continues to employ young people, but he doesn’t have openings this summer.


“It varies, depending on whether my local college students come back into town for the summer,” Thomas said. “We usually hire three or four students during the summer, but we won’t be doing that this year because everybody’s back. In the Culver’s system, we’ve had the lowest turnover rate (11.9 percent), and that’s unheard of in this business.”


Bonnie Davis, director of recreation for the city of Janesville, said the department usually hires 75 to 100 summer workers, including life guards, ice center help, umpires, scorekeepers and sports camp counselors and instructors.


“We’re usually at the higher end of that range, but this year we’ll be at the bottom because of concerns with the economy,” Davis said. “We have fewer families because of GM and other companies closing, so our camps aren’t in as high of a demand.


“We will have a full aquatic staff, but the pools and camps are weather-dependent, so we’ll hire less and cut back on some hours if necessary.”


The number of people applying for summer jobs is up, she said.


The situation is similar in Elkhorn, said Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Simons.


“For jobs that we received six or seven applications two or three years ago, this year we’re getting more than 100,” Simons said.


The city continues to employ seasonal workers, he said, but the department has fewer openings.


“Normally, we can keep parks workers for three to four years, but this year we don’t have much turnover,” Simons said.


Tom Den Boer, CEO of the YMCA of Northern Rock County, said the organization will hire as many or more workers than last year.


“The majority of our employees are part-time, and hiring revolves around how many of them are going back to school,” he said. “But because of the economy, I see fewer and fewer college kids coming back to work; they’re staying and attending summer school to graduate and find a job sooner.”


Katie Van Altena, store manager of Mounds Pet Food Warehouse in Janesville, said job openings are scarce there.


“We average about 15 employees, and around half of them are students,” Van Altena said. “Most of our employees start here in high school and stay throughout college. We get a lot of applications, but we haven’t had a high turnover rate lately.”


In Walworth County, employers generally are cautious about adding seasonal employees, said George Hennerley, executive vice president of the Lake Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.


“I see a great reluctance in the business community to say that the economy is roaring back, even though we’ve had a few good weekends in this area because of the nice weather,” Hennerley said. “People are being cautious about hiring. Naturally, some places—such as the cruise line, golf courses and restaurants—need seasonal staffs, but after what we’ve been through, many are holding out long-term.”


An increase in Wisconsin’s minimum wage from $5.90 per hour to $7.25 might be making a difficult job market worse for young people, Hennerley said.


“There isn’t as much of a difference, now, so the incentive to hire isn’t there,” Hennerley said. “The question is, do they hire four part-time workers or go with two full-timers who maybe you can train and keep around longer?”


David Lindellow, general manager of the Abbey Resort & Spa in Fontana, said the increased minimum wage hasn’t affected his hiring practices.


“We have been paying close to those rates anyway and always are doing cost analysis on these numbers,” he said.


Lindellow is optimistic that business will be better this year and next.


The Abbey usually hires as many as 150 seasonal employees who work May through October, but those numbers were down considerably a year ago.


“Last year, we hired only around 90 people, but this year it’ll be about 120,” Lindellow said.


Hennerley said most businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach.


“I believe people are being realistic but optimistic,” Hennerley said. “Our location benefits us as far as getting more weekend and day travelers. And I think the numbers are starting to look better. But when people aren’t sure, they proceed with caution.


“I believe what’s holding us back is the fear of the great unknown, and the political volatility we’ve seen lately.”


--The story was first published in the Stateline News and the Janesville Messenger.

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