As the nation’s job market sputtered in recent years, leaving millions of Americans without work, the stereotype of the low-wage, low-skilled deadbeat cashing unemployment checks became a bogeyman for America’s economic woes.
But people like Mike Parker explode that myth.
Parker, a Flowery Branch resident, was one of hundreds from Hall County and neighboring communities who attended the annual Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s job fair Wednesday at the Gainesville Civic Center, where some 50 employers were prospecting for qualified candidates.
A licensed mortgage loan originator, Parker was laid off a few months ago when American Legacy Mortgage, located in Gainesville, closed its doors. He held off for as long as he could before signing up for unemployment insurance two weeks ago.
“I assumed that I would find a job quickly enough that I would not need unemployment,” Parker said. “I didn’t want the unemployment check. I hated doing that. It hurts.”
Like many people at the job fair, Parker comes from the professional class, a segment of the workforce that was hit particularly hard by the recession.
According to the National Employment Law Project, middle- and high-wage positions accounted for about 80 percent of job losses during the recession, while low-wage positions accounted for about 60 percent of the job gains since the bottom fell out of the economy.
That contrast explains why educated workers like Parker have begun to seek jobs that don’t necessarily line up with their professional background.
“There are people who are struggling to find a job or a better job to replace something that they’ve had,” Parker said. “It’s not people who are deadbeats.”
Parker said he would make the rounds at the fair, stopping at booths hosted by Wells Fargo, among others. He said he hopes to get back to the work he has made a career in, work that has allowed him to raise a family and send his grown children to school. But he also knows he must do what he must do.
“For me, (the fair) is like one-stop shopping,” Parker said.
Many of the employers at the fair were staffing firms looking to hire workers in fields ranging from customer service to warehousing to maintenance mechanics.
Blanche Alford, a staffing specialist with Hire Dynamics in Duluth, said she had heard from many attendees who are transitioning between jobs, looking for a new line of work or perhaps trying to move up the corporate ladder.
While the job fair was certainly aimed at prospective job seekers, it also provided an opportunity for employers to engage qualified candidates and advance their brand in the local workforce.
“I like to get out and encourage a lot of the job seekers,” said Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, who attended the fair. “But also, just as importantly, is to talk to employers and see how they are doing.”
Butler said it’s important for the Department of Labor to assist businesses in their job recruiting efforts, adding that job fairs are an important step in helping both employees and employers match their respective needs.
“The most effective way of finding a job is getting face to face with an employer,” Butler said.
Al Gainey, franchise owner of the professional staffing group Spherion, which was a lead sponsor of the fair, said it offered an opportunity for his business to network with the many skilled workers who find themselves out of a job.
“We think it’s extraordinarily important to give back to our community in this way,” he added.
The struggles of the unemployed will not easily be remedied. For all the hope and opportunity the fair provides, it is not without its faults in the eyes of some job seekers.
Joe (who declined to give his last name), an educator who has worked at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, said he was disappointed that more educators, such as local colleges and universities, weren’t represented.
While he continues to look for work that matches his education and training, Joe said he would pursue clerical and administrative positions to fill his needs. But he remains concerned about how lower wages might affect his ability to support his family.
“I got to pay the rent, put food on the table,” Joe said.
While the unemployment rate improves locally and nationally — it fell to 5.6 percent in Gainesville in February from 5.9 percent the month before — wages, when adjusted for inflation, have remained stagnant for the middle class for the better part of two decades.
And as corporate profits and productivity soar, thanks in large part to efficiencies generated by advances in technology, job growth and personal wages remain flat.
Indeed, salaries sat at just 42.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, a 50-year low. And declines in personal income reduce consumer spending, which in turn inhibits job growth, increasing unemployment insurance spending, a cycle that drives down the nation’s economic viability.
Jenna Halsell, a single mother from Buford, knows how difficult it can be to get out of this cycle. She is currently between temp jobs and showed up at the fair hoping to find full-time, permanent work.
But her situation is unique, though no less telling of the struggles workers face in today’s economy.
Because she works a temp job, she said, Halsell does not qualify for unemployment benefits. And because she currently has little to no income, receiving health coverage through the Affordable Care Act is difficult.
“I don’t think they took into account people like me,” Halsell said.
Carol Lott casts another light on the health of the local employment market. She worked for Schreiber Foods in Gainesville for 25 years, but is now looking for work in a different field.
Despite the difficulty in lining up a job, she wore a big, proud smile on her face as she strolled past employer booths in the Civic Center, ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.
“You got to keep a positive attitude,” she said.