Greater Expectations

As they search for signs of a recovering economy, experts are optimistic about the growth of new and different career opportunities in New Orleans.



A mixed bag of uncertainty and cautious optimism forms the local attitude toward the New Orleans job market. Heading into 2001, predictions for the local economy were mired in concerns over the departure of Entergy, the city's only remaining Fortune 500 company; the potential bankruptcy of Harrah's New Orleans Casino; and the move of the New Orleans Saints to greener financial pastures.

All those potential threats were abated, but then the unexpected and unpredicted happened when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 sent the country into an immediate economic tailspin, acting upon a recession resultant from the fallout of the expansive success of the late '90s. The most at-risk sector of the economy was the tourism-based hospitality industry, the backbone of New Orleans job market.

But with 2002 has come a new mayor elected on a sweeping economic development mandate. The local hospitality industry has proven itself strong enough to withstand even the biggest challenges. And in addition to this increased optimism and stability, representatives of local employment services see the need to diversify the local economy and for job seekers to adapt to an economy that shows promising signs of developing in New Orleans.

Nationally, employment news is still bad. The nation's unemployment rate edged up to 5.9 percent in June (the latest figures available from the U.S. Labor Department) as the effects of last year's recession continued to make life difficult for job hunters. The Labor Department's latest survey of the job market shows that 36,000 jobs were created in June, on top of a 24,000 increase the month before. That's good news, of course, but job growth wasn't strong enough to prevent the unemployment rate from rising in June from May's 5.8 percent rate.

Many analysts were predicting the jobless rate would nudge further up, saying that as other parts of the economy are gaining ground after the slump, the labor market is continuing to suffer from some of the fallout. This is still attributed in some degree to the Sept. 11 attacks, combined with the summer's stock market nosedive stemming from a number of factors, including corporate scandal.

Despite such dire news and forecasts, the local hospitality industry appears in good shape. The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau reports hotel bookings at levels similar to the success of previous years. And area restaurants are able to hold onto workers.

"We haven't laid anybody off since 9/11," says Mr. B's Bistro General Manager Randy Stein. "And from the restaurants we've talked to, that seems to be the case all around town."

The local restaurant industry "saw an immediate dropoff for four to six weeks, but since then we've been pretty much normal," Stein continues. "And in New Orleans, the tourism industry recovered much more quickly than the rest of the country, which is still suffering. Here, the small, independently owned places might be hurting a bit, but that's not the case with the larger establishments."

As Stein begins to prepare 2003's budget, he describes the outlook as "flat," meaning there won't be much hiring, but there will not be any firing either. "I'm always optimistic. I'll take flat," Stein says.

Though New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed, among the many dire lessons of 9/11 is the realization of the need to diversify the economy, as a too-heavy reliance upon any one sector -- especially one as volatile as tourism -- can become lethal if that area is threatened. The election of Ray Nagin spurred much optimism in regard to the potential of the New Orleans economy and for the city's future. Encouraging signs point to new, innovative industries blossoming in New Orleans. And in consideration of the generally low wages for many workers in the hospitality industry, the prosperity of the "new economy" locally is eagerly anticipated.

The University of New Orleans' Research and Technology Park, which houses the Navy Information Technology Center, embodies this change. Local, state and federal officials hail the 56-acre park as a precursor for the possible development for the software, technology and information management industries, recognized by many economic experts as the future of the American economy. The R&T Park's 80,000-square-foot Advanced Technology Center has attracted more than a dozen companies.

The Navy computer center, which already employs more than 1,000 people and ultimately will employ 2,000, is in charge of integrating, simplifying and standardizing the collection, storage and management of all Department of Defense manpower, personnel and pay data. Several dozen firms are working on software development and sophisticated integration and networking at the military center. The Research and Technology Park is credited as one of the keys to unlocking the local economy from dependency on tourism.

However, the knowledge that the future lies in high-tech fields spurs the need to better equip New Orleans' labor pool, which is regarded by skeptics as lacking the education and skills to meet the demands of these industries. Considering this, local employment workers cite the need for area job seekers to prepare themselves.

"Right now, it's an employer's market," says Peter Breen, a New Orleans-based recruiter with MSI International, a nationwide recruiting firm. "Entry-level job seekers are competing for less available positions. During the last five years, there were a lot of employers competing for a great amount of talent. That's not the case now."

Breen says the tight job market nationwide gives employers a natural advantage. "Employers can realistically feel good about hiring people right now," he says. "If they're looking to increase their staff, it's a great time for them to do that. In this market, there are some great people -- through no fault of their own -- who are laid off from their jobs."

Despite the gloomy conditions, Breen contends that job seekers still largely determine their own success. "There are steps you can take to make yourself a lot more marketable," he says. "Continuing-education courses gearing you toward specific skills are very impressive to employers when evaluating candidates. And, of course, nailing the interview will always be crucial."

However, there are areas of positive growth in the area, and various agencies are doing their best to prepare job seekers for these jobs.

"Yes, we are still in a recession, but people are getting hired," says Denetra Pate, program coordinator of the New Orleans Job Initiative, a nonprofit that helps provide training and placement for job seekers. "Since 9/11, the economy has slowed down a great deal, and many people got put on hold. But I see the jobs picking up, and, slowly but surely, people will get back to levels they once enjoyed. People need to feel safe in an economy; they don't want to hire in an unsure economy because of the chance they'll have to terminate that new person in one, two months. But we're coming up on a year anniversary (of Sept. 11), so I think those problems will die down soon."

Though Pate still contends that the hospitality industry is the bread and butter of the local economy, she's confident in the growth of other industries.

"Restaurant and hotel jobs are the biggest part of our economy," Pate says. "And though those wages often aren't enough to support families, they will still be needed in the new economy. And those jobs are beginning to pay more, because the workers are in such high demand."

Potentials Pate sees include construction and manufacturing, though she touts the medical field as offering the greatest opportunities to area job hunters.

"Hospitals and the medical field in general is really growing in New Orleans right now," Pate says. "And with all this growth, there are looking to hire. The positions open include nurse assistant positions that, with training, are attainable for a lot of people. And in the medical field, the jobs have salaries and upward mobility that allows for careers to be developed and families sustained. And that's a real eye-opener for many people in New Orleans, and for many, that's all they need to get encouraged."

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