Magazine

Swept Away, Only To Land On Their Feet


Sandra Gibson figures she could have done better. The manager of the Austin (Tex.) office of Granite Construction Inc. hired eight evacuees from Hurricane Katrina as construction workers at a Sept. 12 jobs fair organized by Goodwill Industries. But she still has about 45 jobs she wants to fill. "I was hoping for more applicants," says Gibson, who notes that fewer people than expected showed up at the fair. "We're in the middle of a construction boom. The demand [for workers] is very high."

Cross one worry -- getting a job -- off the checklist for many of the Katrina victims scattered across the country. Nationwide, the job market is solid: August's 4.9% unemployment rate is the lowest in four years and close to what economists reckon is full employment. And 62.9% of the working-age population had jobs in August -- the highest ratio of employment to population in nearly three years.

Perhaps more important, many hurricane victims have landed in stronger job markets than the ones they left in Louisiana and Mississippi before the storm. In July, the latest month for which state data is available, unemployment stood at 5.6% in Louisiana and 6.5% in Mississippi. Contrast that with two nearby states where lots of evacuees have come -- 5% unemployment in Texas and 4.9% in Arkansas. With unemployment numbers that low, there's demand for jobs requiring a wide variety of skills. "We've got everything from clerical positions with banks to customer service call center positions to light industrial, financial, and administrative jobs," says Joyce Russell, chief operating officer of temporary staffing outfit Adecco USA (), which has already hired about 500 evacuees.

The story is similar across the country. In Salt Lake City, of the 85 evacuees who showed up at a Sept. 8 jobs fair, 44 were hired on the spot and another 19 got appointments for a second interview. The offers were in construction, food services, telemarketing, and customer service. "There's a shortage of people in Utah. This is a great place for [evacuees] to be," says Kimberly Barksdale, branch manager of temporary staffing agency Manpower Inc.'s () Salt Lake City office, who found jobs for seven at the fair. Utah unemployment is 4.7%.

NEW COMFORT ZONE

Texas, where some quarter of a million Katrina victims have ended up, is also hiring. The WorkSource, which helps people find jobs in the Houston-Galveston area, has been flooded with offers. "In the first days after the evacuees started arriving we saw employers show up at the lower end and also the trades," says Carol Mitchener, a WorkSource director in Houston. "Now we're seeing many employers wanting people in the professions -- nurses, teachers, accountants." Companies from Las Vegas, Atlanta, and California are flocking to Texas to recruit.

Greeted with strong demand for their services, many evacuees could opt to stay put in their new homes rather than return to the Gulf. Adrian Andrews, 37, says he plans to put down roots in Utah after landing a job at the local outlet of Cabela's Inc., a Sidney (Neb.)-based maker and retailer of hunting and fishing wear. His first day on the job was Sept. 12. Says Andrews: "We've really gotten comfortable here."

To be sure, those who fled the storm with few or no job skills will find it difficult landing a position, no matter where they've ended up. But for many others, the transition is proving less difficult than first feared. "I'm surprised at how easily I got this job," says 27-year-old New Orleans native Keoka Bias, who's working as a customer service representative in St. Louis for billing-services firm Convergys Corp. (). "If I'd been at home in New Orleans, I wouldn't have found a job this quickly."

By Rich Miller in Washington, with Mark Morrison in Austin, Tex., Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore., and Anne Therese Palmer in Chicago


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