High unemployment may be a draw for some companies
By Jaime Levy
With the unemployment rate in Miami-Dade County expected to graze the 8% mark this week when the latest numbers are released, some economic development leaders are finding a positive side to the area's large available workforce.
Holly Wiedman, executive vice president of the Beacon Council, said that in the past few weeks she has received two inquiries from businesses saying Greater Miami was on their relocation short list - and that high unemployment numbers are part of the draw.
"The Beacon Council has been contacted by location consultants specifically inquiring about the unemployment rate, the availability of labor and then the specific question of whether you had recent layoffs," Ms. Wiedman said. "They're interested in people who are laid off who have already been trained."
Since Sept. 11, said Harriet Spivak, executive director of South Florida Workforce Board, 18,000 additional people in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties have filed for unemployment. She said the area's remaining 62,000 unemployed lost their jobs before the terrorist attacks.
She said although the post-Sept. 11 economic downturn has affected all strata of the labor force, jobs related to the hospitality industry - many of which are not considered skill-intensive - have been the hardest hit.
According to state numbers, occupations losing the most jobs statewide after the attack were waiters and waitresses, food preparation servers at fast-food restaurants, retail salespeople, restaurant cooks, maids and housekeepers.
"The more skilled the workforce is in Dade County, the more employers we'll attract. But let's face it, there's a concern that the workforce in Dade County doesn't have the skills a number of employers are looking for," Ms. Spivak said. "I would imagine that the tourism and travel-related industries are hoping the season will rebound. But that's not going to happen tomorrow and it's not going to happen next week. People in these jobs could benefit from considering some other occupations that would require the same training."
Indeed, Ms. Spivak and others said, the presence of programs such as Operation Paycheck - a state project designers say provides relatively quick retraining programs to the recently unemployed - could help make Miami-Dade County a magnet for labor-intensive companies.
"In my experience, training always makes a difference in the workforce, especially in South Florida, where there's a problem with the skill pool," said Maria Victoria Delgado, director of the Hialeah Central one-stop career center, an office of South Florida Workforce. She said the majority of people she is seeing are paid between $7.50 and $14 an hour, often at manufacturing jobs.
"Companies aren't interested in the Harvard graduate, but they are interested in a bachelor's or an associate's or a certificate saying you do have the skills to come into the workforce."
Within the state, Miami-Dade County's unemployment rate is traditionally high. The county rate is 6.3% while the state average is 4.5%, according to analysis done at the end of September by the Agency for Workforce Innovation. Ms. Weidman said the new numbers are expected this week.
But having a throng of people looking for jobs, Ms. Delgado said, will not by itself attract new businesses.
"Companies have to look at what skills people have," Susanna Patterson, economic analyst, said. "A high-tech company can't just look at the people unemployed and assume the people have the skills."
Ms. Wiedman would not say what types of companies had recently approached the Beacon Council looking for recently unemployed workers or how many jobs they would bring if their firms move to Miami. She said the firms were looking to establish call centers or regional operations in the county and are therefore interested in workers with computer, phone and customer service skills, in particular.
These particular company representatives, Ms. Wiedman said, had not expressed interest in the area before the economic downturn.
"They're businesses that have probably been looking for new locations and are recently stepping up their evaluative process," she said. "I think the inquiries are serious. They're collecting a lot of information. They're saying we are on a short list."
Ms. Spivak said her organization's interest is in catering to the needs of potential employers.
"If we know a business is looking for certain kinds of skill sets and they're not available," she said, "we put together training to try to help that particular employer."