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Laboring in Marin: Jobless Rate Paints Incomplete Picture

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Marin Independent Journal

Mary Keydash of Forest Knolls is always on the move.

She’s a freelance advertising copywriter, a graphic designer and
a bassist in an Italian-American retro band. Between those three
jobs, Keydash, 51, makes a steady income and is comfortable doing
so.

"I survive by being able to multi-task," she said. "I’ve
had difficulty finding work in the past, but I always land on my
feet and prosper because I have acquired several skill sets that
are marketable."

Like many Marin residents, Keydash’s story sits on the outskirts
of the monthly data from the state that tells Marin officials about
the local job market.

Marin consistently leads the state with the lowest jobless rate,
recording a state-best 3.9 percent in July. But several local experts
said the numbers aren’t comprehensive indicators of the job outlook
here.

"There are a lot of people that are cobbling together a livelihood
in many ways, and there are a lot of other people who have given
up looking," said Supervisor Cynthia Murray.

Neither of those groups – freelancers and those who aren’t seeking
work – count among the employed or the jobless, according to the
state’s employment development division.

San Rafael resident Justin Spencer, a former developer at a software
company he declined to name, also doesn’t register on the state’s
unemployment rolls for a different reason. He temporarily stopped
looking for a job two months ago, and therefore is ineligible to
collect unemployment from the state or count toward the number of
jobless in Marin.

"I just felt like I was kind of spinning my wheels, applying
for jobs on the Internet and not getting calls back when I followed
up," he said. "It’s been frustrating. I’ll probably start
looking again in a few weeks."

Spencer said he was making nearly six figures at his last job and
he has saved enough money to avoid worrying about paying the bills.

But that high salary also put him in a predicament; he’s among workers
affected by a drop in high-wage jobs in California.

Higher-paying professional and managerial jobs in the state sustained
net losses in the past year, according to a new study from the University
of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

UC Berkeley research economist Arindrajit Dube reported that even
with growth of 300,000 jobs in California in the past 12 months
and 2 million new jobs nationwide, there are still 2 percent fewer
working-age adults now employed in California and the United States
than at the start of 2001.

Overall job creation hasn’t been fast enough to keep up with the
growth in the working age population, said Ken Jacobs, deputy chair
of the center.

"Because of that slack in the labor market, we have seen continued
wage stagnation, because employers have no incentive to raise wages,"
he said. "In the beginning of the recovery, we were seeing
more high-wage jobs than low-wage jobs. That trend has reversed."

The lowest-paid third of the U.S. workforce has seen its wages decline
for three years in a row, Dube reported. But in California, the
lowest-paid third of workers – earning $12 an hour or less – saw
some improvement, largely due to a minimum wage increase to $6.75
an hour in 2002.

Dube found that job categories in California experiencing growth
in the past year paid $2.50 an hour less than job categories undergoing
reductions.

That trend is even more pronounced in Marin, an economy dominated
by service and retail jobs and real estate, Jacobs said.

"That’s quite worrisome, given that it’s not likely that the
real estate boom continues as it has forever," he said. "It
doesn’t have to be a bubble and burst to see job losses in that
sector. If interest rates go up, you’ll see that cut back."

Dube found that net new jobs in construction and real estate accounted
for 21 percent of all jobs added by California’s growing job categories
in the past three years, compared with 14 percent throughout the
country. The construction and real estate sector’s share of all
employment in the state rose from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent
in 2005.

Many people searching for high-wage jobs like Spencer are turning
to Marin Professionals, a division of the Marin Employment Connection
dedicated to professional and management jobs, where people can
network, search for jobs and sharpen their skills to make them more
attractive to potential employers.

Marin Employment Connection Director Mary Donovan said Marin Professionals
has almost 100 members.

"It’s simply more difficult for those people to get back into
employment these days," she said.

Keydash used the center to learn how to write copy with Web search
engines in mind, updating her skills for the digital age.

"It helped me to expand my market base," she said.

Alex Killebrew of Novato falls into yet another category on the
fringes of the job market. Released from prison in October 2004
after a five-month incarceration for identification fraud, Killebrew
said he promised himself that he’d get into the culinary field and
get his life together for the sake of his 2-year-old daughter.

"I owed her that," he said.

Killebrew, 27, enrolled in the Home Plate program through Homeward
Bound at the New Beginnings Center in Hamilton. The five-year-old
program teaches culinary skills and helps students find jobs at
restaurants and catering companies.

Killebrew said he’s sold – he’s enrolled in more training starting
next week and hopes to land a job after that. For now, he works
part time in the kitchen as weekend chef.

The bottom line for Marin, Murray said, is that even though it often
tops the state among the most employed counties, it can always improve.

"I’ve seen a lot of companies leaving Marin over the years
and many of them took high-paying jobs with them," she said.
"We have to replace those jobs."

"I don’t think you can ever rest on your laurels that you’ve
created enough jobs," she said. "We always have to look
at new ways to bring new employment."