U.S. cities grapple for new jobs in economic upswing

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In a depressed neighborhood in the City of Angels, hundreds of good jobs appeared to fall from the sky last week.

Applicant Veronica Diaz, 35, holds her 18-month-old son Diego Galliano as she stands in line during a job fair at the Southeast LA-Crenshaw WorkSource Center in Los Angeles, November 20, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Young and middle-aged Los Angeles residents, mostly blacks and Hispanics, lined up down the block at an employment office for more than 600 jobs, paying $14 an hour and higher with free healthcare, at new JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels downtown.

But this was no miracle, nor was it a windfall from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan. Rather, it was the payoff from years of work by City Hall to draw new investments and ensure jobs go primarily to locals.

And that is the problem. As the U.S. economy shows glimmers of improvement, there is not much even a city of 4 million people can do to take advantage of it quickly.

Los Angeles, the second-largest U.S. city, has a jobless rate of 13.9 percent. Like other big U.S. cities, it has few tools to spur jobs as the economy picks up again.

“This could be a two-year, jobless recovery,” Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Larry Frank told Reuters.

Irena Seta, a coordinator at the employment center located near the Los Angeles Coliseum sports stadium, said many job-seeking clients are now unemployed up to 18 months, and she expects little improvement next year.

“It will probably be in 2011 when we see a vast increase in employment,” said Seta, surrounded by hundreds of hopeful applicants for jobs located a few miles up the freeway.


Torian Willis, 24, is a typical applicant. A construction worker unemployed for a year, he aims to get a job in the hotels’ maintenance or housekeeping departments.

“The government has a lot of stuff to worry about right now, we have a lot of foreign issues to take care of, so every man has to take care of himself,” Willis said.

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But unemployment is a pressing domestic issue as the jobless rate surpasses 10 percent and forecasts point to a so-called “jobless recovery,” an economic rebound in which companies use overtime, efficiency and other methods to raise production without hiring.

Obama has called a jobs forum in early December, but warns there won’t be a second stimulus package from the federal government to jump-start job creation.

Thus far, the city of Los Angeles has received $44 million in federal stimulus funds for workforce training aimed at creating 12,000 jobs for the 270,000 out of work.

“Given the largess coming from the Obama administration, we can solve our problem in the tens of thousands, but our problem is in the hundreds of thousands,” Frank said.

The city’s current unemployment rate is probably the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Frank said, and outpaces California’s 12.5 percent because it was more vulnerable to the housing crisis and relied heavily on the movement of goods.

Logistics has replaced manufacturing as the city’s top industry, the byproduct of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that handle 45 percent of U.S. container traffic.

California still has the most manufacturing jobs in the nation, but getting those more stable industrial jobs back in Los Angeles will be difficult.


Instead, city leaders are focused on construction, logistics, healthcare, hospitality and “green” jobs for the future, and are taking a very long-term view to job creation.

One of the big goals is to get a federal advance on $40 billion of future sales tax receipts for investment in long-awaited public transportation projects.

“If we are able to advance those dollars with the help of the federal government and move those projects from a 30-year timeline to a 10-year one, those are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Frank said.

Getting the workforce trained up will also be a key for more stable employment over the long term. Los Angeles suffers from a severe “skills gap” because 800,000 people live below the official poverty line and 40 percent read below an eighth-grade level.

“Believe it or not, there are jobs out there, but a lot of people have not been trained or do not have experience in those areas,” Seta said.

Even though 50 percent of those 600 hotel jobs on offer are reserved for people who live within 3 miles of the new downtown entertainment complex known as L.A. Live, local residents may get only 100 due to lack of qualifications.

Gisella Garcia, a 20-year-old pastry chef dressed in a white chef’s jacket, said she was “very hopeful” she would get an interview after two years of training at culinary school.

No matter how many jobs go to locals, labor activist Paulina Gonzalez said the opportunity to offer so many good jobs to the community was cause for celebration.

“It is a sign that we can continue to do this kind of economic development in the city and work together to make sure that jobs are created,” said Gonzalez, executive director of a coalition that advocates for local-hire requirements.

Willis, whose unemployment benefits just ran out, believes his city’s economy will soon deliver a job.

“With God’s blessing, I’ll be able to find some employment,” he said.

Editing by Peter Henderson and Will Dunham