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Unemployed Pittsburgh workers seeking 'bridge' jobs struggling

Joe Napsha
| Thursday, April 9, 2009

When the Hofbrauhaus was seeking cooks and servers to staff its German-styled beer hall at SouthSide Works, it had little problem attracting applicants.

"There were a lot of people in different situations. Most of them were not getting a lot of hours (at other restaurants) because of the recession," said Thomas Williams, general manager at Hofbrauhaus, which opened last month.

The restaurant was looking for workers experienced in the food-service industry — and found them. Hofbrauhaus hired 250, mostly full time, Williams said. Some were college graduates unable to find a job in their field of study.

Workers looking for jobs in the Pittsburgh region are finding fewer this year than in 2008. There were 92,000 out of work in the seven-county region in February — 29,800 more than in February 2008, according to state figures.

The leisure-and-hospitality job sector — which includes food and beverage establishments such as Hofbrauhaus — lost 5,300 jobs during the last year, according to figures.

It is among several local job sectors that have lost more than 1,000 jobs from February 2008 to February 2009. Other sectors with losses are manufacturing, down 6,300 jobs; retail trade, down 3,600 jobs; administrative and support services, down 3,200; employment services, down 2,300 jobs; and specialty-trade contractors, down 2,200 jobs.

Food service, retail and other service jobs sometimes are viewed as a "bridge job" that people who are laid off can hold until they return to their field of training or career profession, experts say. But as the February employment figures show, even those jobs are in short supply during this recession.

Job losses in the retail-trade and leisure-and-hospitality sectors are not surprising, said Frank Gamrat, senior research associate at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Castle Shannon-based think tank.

"Generally speaking, when you have an economic slowdown, the retail sector tends to take it on the chin. People have less money to spend," which eventually translates into fewer jobs, Gamrat said.

For those who have lost professional jobs, Gamrat said he doubts they will turn to the retail sector.

"They may go into leisure and hospitality, where they have a chance for more money," because they could earn tips, Gamrat said. They also may receive more money through worker's compensation benefits than if they worked a 40-hour week in those jobs, he noted.

Retail-trade jobs often are filled by teens or young adults, some of whom are working their first job after graduating from college, Gamrat said. They look at the sector as a "bridge job" in which they can earn some money until a job in their career field opens.

For professionals who have been caught in downsizing during this recession — and there were 2,800 fewer professional and business service jobs in the region this February than a year ago — the bridge job might be working on a temporary project for a company, said Ned Sherry, vice president of OI Partners - The Callos Companies, a Downtown career consultant and outplacement service.

Companies that have reduced staff still need projects to be completed. And out-of-work professionals, with the necessary skills, can fulfill that demand, Sherry said.

"The key always is to get your ... foot in the door" of these companies, and they may hire the temporary worker, or hire the person when the economy rebounds, Sherry said.

Underemployment — when a person's skills and experience are mismatched for the job requirements, such when an unemployed worker takes a bridge job — is increasing, said one expert.

Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., said that with more people jobless and fewer job openings, she is "absolutely sure this recession has dramatically increased underemployment."

"All the indicators show that during such long spells of unemployment, people are taking jobs below their skills level," Shierholz said, adding that on a national level, there are more than four jobless workers for every job opening.

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