Look­ing for work frus­trates many peo­ple in Mem­phis

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - Ted Evanoff USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – TENN. Seedco Mem­phis

Some wore suits. Some wore T-shirts. They all came with the same ques­tion. How do I get a job? You hear that asked of­ten in Mem­phis, Joseph “C.J.” Harris said.

Even af­ter what just hap­pened, you hear it of­ten.

Mem­phis job mar­ket

Hir­ing was strong all sum­mer. Al­most one of every two peo­ple liv­ing in the re­gion drew a pay­check by Au­gust.

Em­ploy­ers added 4,500 new po­si­tions from May into Au­gust, when 655,500 pay­roll jobs were counted in metropoli­tan Mem­phis. His­toric? In a way. This was the most jobs ever mea­sured here in any Au­gust in any year.

Still, there was that ques­tion.

Part-time jobs

How do I get in the door? About 71,200 new full- and part-time jobs have emerged in metropoli­tan Mem­phis since Jan­uary 2011, when em­ploy­ment fell to the low point for a re­gion then still mired in re­ces­sion.

To­day, em­ploy­ers con­tend they can’t grow more quickly. They’ve run out of skilled work­ers.

Yet thou­sands of peo­ple are un­der­em­ployed or un­em­ployed and look­ing in. Au­gust’s unem­ploy­ment rate inched up to 4.4 per­cent for the Mem­phis area af­ter nearly 14,000 job­less peo­ple out­side the la­bor force came off the side­lines, started look­ing for work.

It was a sign peo­ple had heard the times are good. Thou­sands of oth­ers hoped for a bet­ter job at bet­ter pay.

Which led Harris to run a re­cent job fair he said was head­lined by a sim­ple ques­tion:

“Why can’t I get a job?’’

“A lot of firms are look­ing for in­di­vid­u­als with ba­sic skills, maybe six months to a year of ex­pe­ri­ence on a job. We’re con­nect­ing those places with the pop­u­la­tion we’re ser­vic­ing,” said Harris, a Mem­phis man­ager for Seedco, a New York-based anti-poverty non­profit.

As most every­one who lives here knows, metro Mem­phis is a re­gion of con­trasts.

Within the Mem­phis city lim­its live about 507,000 men and women 16 and older. The U.S. cen­sus shows just over one of every two hold jobs.

This sounds good. In a city where a

quar­ter of the men, women and chil­dren are con­sid­ered im­pov­er­ished, half the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion works.

But look out­side the big city to the sub­urbs, where a ris­ing share of the re­gion’s mid­dle-class fam­i­lies live, white and black.

Re­tail­ers are fol­low­ing the mid­dle class. Not­ing the wave of re­tail space built in the last year, mar­ket an­a­lyst Mar­cus & Mil­lichap counted 303,000 square feet of ad­di­tional space, an amount equal to a large shop­ping mall, though this was spread among smaller stores chiefly in the sub­urbs.

“Peo­ple are mov­ing ba­si­cally to make a fu­ture for them­selves,” Uni­ver­sity of Mem­phis econ­o­mist John Gnuschke said.

Just the other day, a U.S. cen­sus tract anal­y­sis by Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and Brown Uni­ver­sity re­searchers was re­leased, Gnuschke said.

Named the Op­por­tu­nity At­las, it sug­gests the neigh­bor­hood where a per­son grows up tends to show how well off they will be in adult life.

“Mov­ing out of poor neigh­bor­hoods is an im­por­tant trend,” he said. “It’s hap­pen­ing in Mem­phis.”


Southaven, for ex­am­ple, since 2000 has al­most dou­bled in pop­u­la­tion to 54,000 res­i­dents, in­clud­ing 39,000 age 16 and older. Two of three hold jobs.

Southaven is the largest city in De­Soto County, where an es­ti­mated 45,000 res­i­dents com­mute daily from De­Soto to jobs lo­cated pri­mar­ily in Mem­phis and Shelby County.

Seedco is less in­tent on steer­ing th­ese com­muters or well-paid Mem­phi­ans into bet­ter jobs. It’s aimed at aid­ing those on the mar­gins, in­clud­ing peo­ple shut­tled be­tween temp agen­cies.

Hun­dreds of firms rely on agen­cies to comb through the la­bor force. Firms need a steady sup­ply of suit­able ap­pli­cants. Thou­sands of peo­ple jump from temp job to temp job, lured by an ex­tra $1 an hour or a shorter com­mute.

Temp agen­cies

Con­stant turnover has tended to lead many em­ploy­ers to rely on agen­cies to man­age con­stant hir­ing. At the same time, ex­pec­ta­tions have been blunted for many peo­ple in the temp ranks.

In­stead of view­ing temp work as an en­try point to a ca­reer, many peo­ple ques­tion whether they’ll ever do more than what they do now, said Tara Colton, Seedco ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in New York.

“We’ve seen a lot of peo­ple who have lost the vi­sion for be­ing able to ever re­tire from a job,” Colton said, “or they’ve lost the en­thu­si­asm of stay­ing at the job and ris­ing in the ranks.”

Part-time jobs

Just how many temp work­ers are em­ployed in metro Mem­phis isn’t clear. Nor is it cer­tain how many peo­ple work two or more jobs.

About 613,100 metro Mem­phis res­i­dents were em­ployed in Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to the reg­u­lar house­hold sur­vey by gov­ern­ment la­bor mar­ket an­a­lysts. A sep­a­rate gov­ern­ment sur­vey of em­ploy­ers found 655,500 pay­roll jobs.

While th­ese sur­veys are not meant as com­par­isons, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two fig­ures sug­gests the num­ber of peo­ple work­ing two or more jobs.

In metro Mem­phis, this dif­fer­ence to­tals 42,400, com­pared with 28,000 in Louisville, Ken­tucky; 16,000 in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama; 9,000 in New Or­leans; and 2,000 in Nashville.

Paragon Bank

Right now, Greater Mem­phis is rolling.

Paragon Bank this sum­mer launched the Greater Mem­phis Area Con­sumer Sen­ti­ment Sur­vey.

Af­ter con­tact­ing a sam­ple of res­i­dents in the metro area’s two most pop­u­lous coun­ties (930,000 peo­ple live in Shelby, 175,000 in De­Soto), the Mem­phis bank re­cently re­leased the re­sults.

Nearly four in 10 re­spon­dents con­sid­ered them­selves bet­ter off than last year, half said they were the same, and one in 10 said they were worse off.

While the homes sur­veyed tended to be in the sub­urbs (34 per­cent of the re­spon­dents lived within the Mem­phis city lim­its), the sur­vey cap­tured the time’s buoy­ancy — about 9 of every 10 were at least feel­ing OK.

When it came to job searches, 47 per­cent agreed jobs can be found but it takes some search­ing; 20 per­cent thought jobs easy to find.

“I think it’s a pretty pos­i­tive read­ing,” said Robert Shaw Jr., Paragon chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. “It’s been hard to get back all those jobs we lost in the re­ces­sion, but this is the strong­est I’ve seen it in a long time.”

Ama­zon $15

“Even with com­pa­nies like Ama­zon rais­ing pay to $15 an hour, th­ese are still en­try-level jobs that a lot of peo­ple aren’t pre­pared for,” said U of M’s Gnuschke, head of the school’s Sparks Bu­reau of Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search, which Paragon con­tracted to per­form the con­sumer sur­vey.

Be­cause poor neigh­bor­hoods abound in Mem­phis, he said, more than $15 jobs are needed to open a sound fu­ture for the city’s chil­dren.

“We’ve not been able to ad­dress the lack of our abil­ity to solve the prob­lems of skills and ed­u­ca­tion,’’ Gnuschke said.

“Every city sees th­ese same prob­lems. They are not solved in one busi­ness cy­cle.”

‘Why can’t I find a job?’

C.J. Harris, though, is try­ing. Last year, Seedco job fairs con­nected 892 peo­ple with 400 em­ploy­ers.

This year’s “Why Can’t I Find a Job” event drew dozens of peo­ple to Seedco’s of­fice in Clark Tower. The an­swers rolled out: Dress well. Ar­rive on time. Bring more than one re­sume. Write a spe­cial re­sume for each em­ployer. Stay put for a year or two. Hir­ing man­agers fear job jumpers also will leave them quickly.

Em­ploy­ing ex-felons

Seedco also has done some­thing else. It’s reach­ing out to the re­gion’s exfelon pop­u­la­tion, look­ing for ways to bring peo­ple into the work­force and ease con­cerns of po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers.

Four grants will en­able ser­vice to 740 in­di­vid­u­als pri­mar­ily in Mem­phis and West Mem­phis.

“Re-en­try has be­come a ma­jor fo­cus for us,” Colton said. “The need in Mem­phis, and the fact we’re go­ing into West Mem­phis, is re­ally stag­ger­ing.”

Ted Evanoff, busi­ness colum­nist of The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal, can be reached at evanoff@com­mer­cialap­peal.com and (901) 529-2292.


Ama­zon will in­crease its min­i­mum wage on Nov. 1 to $15 for all U.S. full-time, part-time, sea­sonal and tem­po­rary em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing temps hired by agen­cies.

Job seek­ers par­tic­i­pate in a re­sume writ­ing class in 2017. Em­ploy­ers added 4,500 new po­si­tions from May into Au­gust, when 655,500 pay­roll jobs were counted in metropoli­tan Mem­phis. LM OTERO / AP

Colum­nist Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

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