It's no mystery why Douglas County continues to enjoy lower unemployment than many of its neighbors, Gary Toebben says.
Toebben, who is Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president, said the county's low unemployment rate can be traced to two factors.
"First, it's a tribute to the Lawrence economy to be able to provide that many jobs," he said. "Second, it's a tribute to the workforce in the Douglas County economy. We simply don't have a workforce here that files for unemployment. We have people here who want to work."
The size of the local workforce has shown steady growth in the last few years. The civilian labor force numbered 42,169 in December, according to Lawrence Job Service Center statistics. That compares with 39,700 in 1987 and 40,500 in 1988.
TOEBBEN SAID he expects the job picture will remain bright, based on the strength of the local economy and the nature of the workforce. In addition, he said there's a downward trend in the unemployment rate nationwide, with unemployment generally declining in the last several years.
Locally, the Kansas Department of Human Resources recently reported that the county's unemployment rate was 3.4 percent in January, up from 3.1 percent in December, but still well below the state average of 4.4 percent.
The department, which tracks employment in the state, attributed the rise in unemployment to retailers releasing temporary workers hired for the Christmas season.
Andrea Curry, director of communications for the Department of Human Resources, said Douglas County's unemployment rate was lower than all of its neighbors except Johnson County, which recorded a rate of 2.8 percent in January. Shawnee County's unemployment was 4.5 percent, Jefferson County's was 6.5 percent, Osage County's was 7.1 percent, Franklin County's was 7.6 percent and Miami County's was 6 percent.
And despite January's increase, the county's unemployment rate was still lower than the rates in 1987 and 1988, when it averaged about 3.8 percent. In 1989, the unemployment rate went from a high of 3.9 percent in June to a low of 2.6 percent in October and averaged 3.2 percent for the year.
"In fact, for a lot of people with a college education in Lawrence, the problem they lament is not unemployment, it's under-employment," Toebben said.
ONE INDICATOR of under-employment is the overwhelming interest shown when two new plants advertised job openings.
More than 3,500 people applied for 90 positions at Eudora's UARCO printing plant, which began operation last August, according to Bill Martin, the chamber's director of economic development.
"That is really unbelievable," Martin said. "Most of them came from the Lawrence and Eudora area."
The Garage Door Group in East Hills Business Park received more than 900 applications in response to one newspaper ad, he said, "and they said they're still getting 10 to 12 walk-ins a day."
Garage Door Group eventually will have 65 full-time employees, he said.
"A lot of consultants will tell you you're doing real good if you've got an applicant-to-job ratio of three or four to one. UARCO was, what, 30, 40 to one," Martin said.
Shirley Martin-Smith, owner of Martin-Smith Personnel and Adia Personnel Services, also said she sees under-employment in Lawrence.
"USUALLY in my business, when you have an unemployment rate of less than 5 percent, supposedly you don't have enough people," she said," but it's simply not true."
There are a number of reasons for under-employment, Toebben said. One, many people have ties to Lawrence, such as a spouse who works at Kansas University or is a student there.
And "you just have people who like Lawrence," he said. "Once they get here, they don't want to move. They'd rather take a job that pays a little less and live in Lawrence."
Even so, Toebben said there are two groups of employers in Lawrence that typically have trouble finding enough workers.
In the first group are employers that pay relatively low wages, he said, such as fast-food restaurants, some retail businesses and some manufacturing plants.
THE SECOND group includes businesses that need mid-level technical people, especially in the computer field, he said.
A chamber of commerce task force formed to examine the local job picture and explore ways to bring additional people into the workforce wrapped up its work last fall, Toebben said.
The task force enlisted the help of Kansas University's Institute for Public Policy and Business Research, which in December released a wage survey and labor market characteristics report for Lawrence and Douglas County.
The survey of 169 businesses and other establishments in the county pointed out, among other things, that the average wage level here is "significantly lower" than in most larger metropolitan areas that participated in the survey.
The presence of Kansas University is a major factor in the job picture, providing a pool of well-educated workers. However, it also serves to put downward pressure on local wages, especially in the secretarial, clerical and technical occupations, the survey showed.
Other findings were "exceptionally low" worker turnover, although student employment leads to higher turnover rates in individual businesses.
"I DON'T think there were any surprises," Toebben said of the survey, which was intended to provide up-to-date information for recruiting businesses to the county. The survey also aimed to help local companies maintain a competitive wage structure, and assess the potential of the local labor pool.
Executives with two local firms that have had some trouble finding enough employees in the past said they've had more success lately.
"It's been a little better the past seven or eight months," said Tom Olson, president of Entertel, which employs about 300 people, 75 of them in Lawrence.
"We have a good flow of applications," said Phil Nowak, general manager of the Sallie Mae operation here. Sallie Mae is a student loan marketing firm.
Sallie Mae went short-staffed through last fall, he said, "but we have worked hard in the last quarter to get up to full staff." Sallie Mae stepped up its recruiting efforts and publicity, which Nowak said brought in more applicants.
Sallie Mae employs between 575 and 600 people, about three-quarters of them full time, he said.
TWO LOCAL employment consultants say it's hard to get a good look at the job picture.
"The market is changing drastically from last year and two, three years ago," said Mark Rau, regional manager at Manpower Temporary Services. "We are seeing a lot of new companies," he said, with the approaching opening of the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza, expansion of old companies and the establishment of new firms such as UARCO.
Rau noted the increased business activity in western Lawrence, particularly in the the University Corporate and Research Park, and also said that the new riverfront mall "will truly help Lawrence a lot."
"We're starting to run out of jobs for students. Retail is usually a real good place for students," he said, because of the flexible work schedules that can be provided.
The mall also should create several managerial jobs, he said.
"What it brings in jobs will be two-, three-fold," Rau said, because service companies will have to expand to meet the needs of Lawrence's newest businesses.
Martin-Smith agreed that the mall will have a widespread impact on Lawrence, saying it should create a demand for marketing positions and a lot of administrative office support positions.
"I think the city needs to play an active, positive role in job creation," said Martin-Smith, who also serves on the Lawrence City Commission. "We need a healthy economic climate for business to grow."