Special Reports

Jobless in Puget Sound

Nine months after getting his layoff notice from Boeing, Stephen Langdon is still unemployed.

He had a job for a few weeks as a delivery driver, but the $10-an-hour wage barely covered his mortgage and was $14 an hour less than he earned as a mechanic at Boeing.

He has applied for more than 50 jobs and had dozens of interviews.

"My work is who I am," Langdon said. "I'm lost. People ask me what's going on and I have nothing to say."

Brian Nelson, another former Boeing worker, moved from University Place to Issaquah last week with the hope of getting a job. He worked for an aviation services company there in the spring but gave it up because of the five-hour commute on public transit. He's hoping to get on with the company again.

Four years ago, when Boeing laid off 23,000 employees in Washington, the job market and the economy were better. Workers were able to find jobs.

That's not the case this time. This is the worst job market in nearly two decades, economists say.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 exacerbated an already sagging economy, squeezing companies and putting employees out of work. Nationwide, 1.7 million workers have lost their jobs since September, according to outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In Washington, 90,000 have lost their jobs, pushing the state unemployment rate to 7.1 percent. Pierce County's rate was 7.4 percent.

With few new jobs in the employment listings, the outlook is bleak.

The economy always has rebounded. But labor market experts say it will take a couple of years to return to lower unemployment rates and higher consumer confidence.

The economy started its decline in January 2001, a time when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was still above 11,000 and the unemployment rate in Pierce County was under 6 percent.

Fast-growing technology companies started to falter and dot.coms began laying off workers. Economists said then that it was be a "slight downturn."

Then terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 decimated the airline, travel and financial industries.

"Nine-11 came on top of a recession," said Roberta Pauer, an economist for Washington State Employment Security. "If 9-11 had come two years earlier, say in September 1999, the impact would have been milder. It was unlucky timing from an economic standpoint."

Western Washington lost thousands of jobs. Boeing shed 19,000 workers. The airlines reduced staff. Layoff notices started coming weekly at the end of 2001 and didn't let up for most of 2002.

Q-Media Services in Fife fired 100. Agrilink let 112 workers go when it closed Nalley's pickle plant in Tacoma. Pioneer Chlor Alkali laid off 96. Telecommunications companies AT&T and Qwest also cut jobs. Last month, Paccar Inc. told 300 workers they would lose their jobs this fall.

The glut of job-seekers created by those layoffs has made it difficult for nearly every job seeker.

"I have a master's degree in electrical engineering but it doesn't matter. I am still looking for a job," said Nikolai Goncharov, a former Boeing engineer.

Goncharov, 37, said he is willing to relocate to Portland, Ore. He sends out between three or four résumés a day.

He and other displaced workers are discouraged. The average time it takes to get a job has jumped from 2.5 months to 3.5 months, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The classified ads offer few options.

Unemployed workers in the Puget Sound are finding few openings, because fewer new jobs are being created right now. The openings employers are trying to fill mostly are jobs left vacant by people moving out of state, retiring, dying or just quitting.

"We are seeing people with high-wage, high-standard-of-living jobs having to make a change," said Colin Conant, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Employment & Training Consortium "To replace the wages of many of these workers is extremely difficult."

The job losses signal a shift in the employment environment. In the "overheated" economy of the late 1990s employers were in bidding wars for workers, who saw skyrocketing salaries, unbelievable benefits and amazing stock options. That's gone now.

Some jobs will come back, but they won't be the $23-an-hour jobs at Boeing, said Charles Nelson, an economics professor from the University of Washington. They more likely will be in service industries, at $7 to $10 an-hour. And when things do get better companies are less likely to be gin a hiring spree.

In the past, Boeing called back thousands of workers a few months or years after a layoff.

But if those jobs are offered again they likely won't be in the United States, Nelson said.

"Those job losses are permanent," he said. "None of this is good."

Labor market experts assure job hunters that the depressed job market is temporary. It will get better in the coming years, but it will be slow.

"The improvement is going to be so gradual even throughout the next 12 months," Pauer said. "This is not going to be a strong recovery. But by the time we get to 2004 there should be a pretty good set of new jobs." She said that by 2005, the state should have an unemployment rate that's back to normal, barring major political events.

Economists say health care and information technology remain good options. There's a real need for those types of workers, Nelson said, and construction jobs will continue to boom.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge project, expected to begin next year, will employ hundreds of workers. The downtown convention center, Harold E. LeMay Museum and other big Tacoma projects also are coming.

"Construction looks pretty good," Conant said. "Those are high-paying jobs."

Displaced workers can use federal and state programs to change occupations and get into one of these growing industries.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Employment & Training Consortium can help workers who want to be retrained to qualify for work in the electrical, mechanical, truck driving and other fields.

Former Boeing worker Langdon participated in one of the retraining programs and is now certified to operate cranes and drive commercial vehicles.

Langdon has heard many reasons for not being hired: He's overqualified, he made too much money at Boeing, he will probably leave if Boeing recalls him. But the bottom line is that he doesn't have a job.

"My lifestyle has changed quite a bit," he said. "I'm so afraid to spend money. Every time I get in my car, it's $5."

Barbara Clements contributed to this report.

Marcelene Edwards: 253-597-8638 marcelene.edwards@mail.tribnet.com

Sept. 11 one year later

This week, we look at Sept. 11's effect on South Sound business:

Today: A year after the terrorist attacks, thousands have been laid off in the Puget Sound region.

Monday: Sea-Tac Airport Director Gina Marie Lindsey says it's not possible to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing luggage scanners to detect explosives.

Tuesday: We're 3,000 miles away from ground zero, yet the Puget Sound regional economy has been shaken by Sept. 11 events more than other parts of the country.

Wednesday: How Northwest companies' stocks fared in the past year.