There's good news in the job market these days. Unemployment is down nationwide and career opportunities in the New Orleans area are abundant. In some industries, the demand for employees exceeds the supply, making it a candidate's market. And local experts agree that with the right training, many of those opportunities, even at the entry level, can be parlayed into rewarding careers.
According to the Louisiana Department of Labor, the service sector is the largest and fastest growing sector of the economy, employing the largest percentage of the local workforce. In fact, estimated long-term industry projections from the Department of Labor's Office of Occupational Information Services show that every division of the service sector will see an increase in the number of jobs between the years 1998 and 2008.
"We're a very service-oriented nation now, where we used to be mostly manufacturing," says Pat Connor, assistant director of the division of business and economic research at the University of New Orleans.
Hospitality: A Perfected Art
One of the top service industries in the greater New Orleans area -- employing an estimated 67,000 people -- is the hospitality industry. "I've seen the hospitality industry keep young people here when nothing else could," says Beverly Gianna, vice president of public affairs of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitor's Bureau.
The thriving tourism, hotel and restaurant businesses comprise this industry, which is the envy of many cities. "New Orleans has perfected the art of hospitality," Gianna says. "Our event planners are among the best in the nation; they handle the most prestigious events like the Super Bowl and the Papal visit."
With both the numbers of international and domestic visitors up in the state -- and with jobs coming from conventions held in other cities as well -- the number of local event planners, also known as destination management companies, has grown in recent years. The companies themselves have grown as well. There are currently 30 such companies, some employing not only local staffs but also employees around the country. The city's ongoing proliferation of restaurants and hotels also has contributed to the hospitality industry's position as a top employer.
The New Orleans area boasts 32,000 hotel rooms, with another 5,000 either in the works or under consideration. Concierge, sales, marketing and public relations positions are among the career tracks available in the hotel business as today's hotels rush to satisfy their clients' every need, from cooking classes to computer services. Meanwhile, Gianna says, more restaurants are employing either in-house or outside public relations people to help them create a niche in a highly competitive market.
"I definitely see room for advancement [in the hotel and restaurant businesses] whether you want to become director of sales, or general manager, or own your own restaurant," says Gianna.
The hospitality industry also has proved fertile ground for entrepreneurs starting specialized tourist-related businesses such as music tours, swamp tours and voodoo dolls. "That's the beauty of the hospitality industry," says Gianna. "There are so many jobs that people have created to cater to various requests and demands."
Health Care: Flexible Schedules
For career candidates interested in the health care field, the picture is equally upbeat. Despite hospital mergers, the demand for registered nurses and diagnostic technicians is greater than the number of candidates.
"Within the last year, all hospitals started feeling the crunch especially in nursing and all of the diagnostic positions such as radiology technicians," says Judy Mathis, Methodist Hospital's human resources recruiting manager. Mathis credits the shortage to the fact that there aren't enough people going into the field -- and in the case of radiology techs, too few enrollment slots in area schools. As a result, many employees are enjoying such perks as flexible schedules.
"Professionals now are juggling family and careers. Health care professionals want more flexibility with their schedules, educational opportunities, and competitive salaries and benefits," says Mathis.
Legal: More Jobs Than People
In the legal field, a shortage of paralegals, legal secretaries and computer-savvy personnel is enabling top candidates to pick and choose among available positions.
"Throughout the entire year, we had more jobs than people and that's an ongoing trend that's even stronger now in the third quarter," says Devry Shuart, partner of Shuart & Associates, an employment firm that specializes in legal staffing. "The stock market was vulnerable so people were not making major changes in their lives like changing jobs, even if they were discontented."
While a college degree is not required to be a legal secretary, Shuart says those with experience can make salaries in the upper 30s along with benefits like 401Ks, profit sharing and end-of-year bonuses.
Technology and Business: An Economic Epiphany
As the information age forges ahead and computer use is a daily fact of life, demand for employees with technology and business skills -- in all types of industries -- is on the rise. Sandy Somerville, program coordinator for Tulane University's Career Services Center, says recruiting of matriculating students by technology-specific companies is slightly down compared to last year, while many companies are interested in business and economic majors. But Paul Forbes, director of the Professional Development Institute at Tulane's University College, a division of Tulane that caters to an entirely local student population, says the demand for training in both areas is up.
"What our students are coming in wanting is reflective of what's going on in the economy," says Forbes. "The trend we're seeing is anything to do with computer information systems and business studies."
Two of the college's three satellite campuses have recently expanded to accommodate increased numbers of students, many of whom need the training to further their careers -- half are employed and receiving tuition support from their employers -- or make career changes.
University College offers a variety of degree tracks including a new one for ecommerce, but one of the hottest, according to Forbes, is that of information systems specialist, a job description that is highly versatile in today's marketplace.
"It's common knowledge that in the computer field, there's good pay," says Genny Bordelon, director of admissions at Herzing College in Kenner, which also offers technology and business degree tracks along with certifications by such companies as Microsoft and CompTia. "A network administrator can work for any company that has a multitude of computers from banks to hospitals. But it's become very competitive, so I tell students that's it's important that they have both a degree and certifications combined."
Some members of the state's labor force are even eligible for federal assistance. The Louisiana Technology Council, a 300-member organization that fosters the development and growth of the technology industry in the state, is currently parenting a federal grant program providing technological training to 350 qualified workers employed in both technical and non-technical fields. And outreach designed to bring the work force up to speed doesn't end there. Metrovision's School-to-Career Partnership, one of nine school-to-work partnerships in the state, brings together regional businesses in a program designed to prepare the future work force by introducing them at the high school level to important local industries such as hospitality, construction, culinary arts, financial services, law and justice, information technology, and (coming in 2002) healthcare.
"We're about trying to make education more exciting and more relevant to what young people will meet in the work force so they can make more educated choices," says Sue Burge, director of the School-to-Career initiative.
A growing source of employment for technology and engineering graduates is the University of New Orleans Research & Technology Park, now in its second phase of development. It is home to the Information Technology Center (ITC) a large-scale software enterprise consolidating all of the information systems of the Department of Defense, and the Advance Technology Center, which houses 12 high tech companies dealing with such areas as software development, information technology and radio frequency. At present, 2,000 people are employed at the park site and another 1,500 jobs are expected to be added by the end of 2002.
"The research park has emerged faster and even more successfully than we anticipated," says Norma Grace, vice chancellor, office of property and facilities development. "As the companies that are there have grown, their presence has created other jobs with suppliers."
Meanwhile, other members of the labor force looking to advance into management are returning to school to pursue MBAs. Some students are responding to private sector demands by pursuing combined business and technical tracks early on. "The MBA draws people from a variety of academic backgrounds," says John Silbernagel, assistant dean of admissions at Tulane's A.B. Freeman School of Business. "For some people's career goals it can be the degree of change. Due to the increased number of MBAs [in the work place], many companies are requiring the degree for certain types of positions."
One of the newest MBA programs in the area is UNO's executive MBA program for people in the healthcare field. "People in management who have a knowledge of the technical side and the business side probably make much better administrators," says UNO's Connor. "If you can get someone who has had both, you get more value for your money."
"I call it an economic epiphany," adds University College's Forbes. "People are realizing the importance of what a degree path can mean in their careers. If you want to earn, you have to learn."
But following indicators in the job market isn't the only way to go. Experts advise that the things that genuinely interest you can be the most motivating force of all, leading ultimately to both personal and financial rewards. "It's good to choose something you like when you're starting out," says Shuart. "If you truly love what you're doing, you'll make money."