Rhode Island’s intensely competitive job market is expected to heat up again this summer, with high school and college graduates vying with unemployed or underemployed adults.
The underemployed for several years have been taking whatever jobs they can find to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, say job-placement specialists. For those adults and new graduates alike, recent work experience is the best hope of standing out in a crowded field of candidates.
“I think with the economy the way it is over the last couple of years, competition is very high,” said Scott Seaback, president of RI Temps in Warwick. “Any position that’s available, everybody is after the work – period.
“I’ve seen a large increase in overqualified candidates applying for the lower positions and some people are taking them. They have to – their unemployment benefits have stopped,” said Seaback.
The scarcity of positions overall, however, may not only keep younger job seekers from earning money for education, a car or to help support the family, but it may hinder their ability to get critical work experience.
“The reality of getting a college graduate with no work experience a job is marginal, with the exception of IT and engineering,” said Lee Johnson, Providence-based branch manager for Adecco, a global staffing agency that works with an extensive range of temporary to executive placements.
“It is absolutely competitive. If an employer is considering a college grad with no business acumen or a 40-year-old with 15 years or more of experience in an industry, the employer will likely know that the experienced worker might only be there for a year or two, but that employee will likely be able to do more for the company,” said Johnson, whose area includes Rhode Island, southeastern Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“We have far too many underemployed people who are in competition with students, even for internships – paid or unpaid,” said Johnson. “An internship is a foot in the door and we counsel our candidates to go do an internship, so we can put that experience on their resume.
“I don’t think the situation has changed tremendously over the last two years,” she said. “Two or three years ago people were just figuring it out, now the word’s on the street.”
That word is “get work experience,” even if the pay is considered too low or even if there’s no pay.
“I have people coming in looking for jobs and I suggest they go out and volunteer, perhaps at a nonprofit, said Johnson. “I know someone who was a designer for Ethan Allen for 17 years, got laid off and is interning at a nonprofit to get some administrative skills so we can find her another job.”
Another challenge is for Rhode Islanders who graduate from colleges in other states and want to come home to work. Jobs in their major may not be available, so they land in a broader pool of applicants seeking more generalized positions, she said.
Rhode Island’s ranking as the state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation – at 8.7 percent in March – puts the competitive job market in focus. That compares to the national average of 6.7 percent in March.
For those hoping to find work just over the border in nearby Massachusetts, the statistics may be even more discouraging. The Providence-Fall River-Warwick metro area had a 9.4 percent unemployment rate in March, the highest among 49 large U.S. metro areas for the second consecutive month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite the stubbornly high unemployment numbers, some residents are finding success in the job market.
Mitchell Folco is one example. Although he just turned 18 on May 2, the senior at New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools Construction and Career Academy has been on a career path since childhood.
“My grandfather did remodeling and I went along with him since I was about 5,” said Folco. “I’ve always wanted to do carpentry since I was young.”
He began his career-bound experience during his summer job in 2010 at Jutras Woodworking in Smithfield. Folco worked at Jutras during the following summers and school vacations.
“The first summer I was there I was helping to load trucks and I learned the basics about how to build cabinets, measuring and things like that. Then I learned about finishing cabinets,” said Folco.
“I like it. It’s hand-on and I’m not sitting in an office all day,” he said.
After graduation in June, Folco hopes to realize his career vision.
“I think David would like to hire me full time,” said Folco, of David Payette, co-owner of Jutras Woodworking. “He has told me they’re looking for young people like me, who want to work in the industry and who get to work on time and get along with their co-workers, like I do.”
The vision is apparently mutual, though not yet finalized.
“We only hire one or two students in the summer,” said Payette. “We’re a small company – only 28 people – and we have a lot of safety considerations, so they can’t do much at first – mostly logistics, preparing things for shipment and then helping the woodworkers assemble cabinets.
“It’s a highly skilled trade. We supply custom cabinetry for the southern New England market,” said Payette. “Mitchell has worked here longer than most students and has expressed interest in working here full time. So there’s a mutual interest in perhaps moving him into an apprenticeship.”
Folco attributes his success in pursuing his career to a program at his school called World of Work and to the program manager and teacher, Marilyn Coppola.
“If it wasn’t for my school, I wouldn’t be working at Jutras,” said Folco. “Miss Coppola taught me to be on time. In the summer I start work at 6:30 in the morning. She taught me how to present myself, and about the work ethic and how to be a team player.”
The World of Work program at the construction career academy is a four-year track. In 9th grade the program begins with career exploration, 10th grade is career preparation, 11th grade transitions in the World of Work curriculum and 12th grade offers students who are ready three credits for their successful work experience. Senior year has a requirement of one physical education and one English class, with the rest of the day on the job.
“This is a comprehensive program. I see them three times a week in ninth, 10th and 11th grades,” said Coppola. “If a student wants to get a job, first I want to see their attendance. They have to be ready to work. We do mock interviews, talk about how to dress and proper communication in the workplace.”
The intensive program has produced good results in the form of jobs for students during summers and school holidays.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, 195 students were enrolled in the World of Work program and 104 of them were placed in jobs, said Coppola.
“Some of those students have two jobs, so there was actually a total of 160 jobs,” said Coppola.
Coppola will place some students this summer who are paid by employers and others funded with the assistance of a grant from the Governor’s Workforce Board.
Many other young people will get work experience this summer through a city of Providence program, in collaboration with the Governors Workforce Board, which will place 650 youths in sites around the city, including 133 positions at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Providence.
Statewide, $1.5 million in funding will help about 1,100 young people get jobs this summer, said Rick Brooks, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Board.
“My sense is that it is tough for young people to find work in the summer because of the competition in the job market,” said Brooks. “These jobs are for [people] 16-24 years old and the jobs are for five weeks, through community-based agencies.
“These jobs are really intended to give them work experience, which they might not otherwise be able to get,” said Brooks. “Work experience is so important for employability.” •