There may be jobs in North Idaho. But there are very few careers.
The region’s decades-old curse of low wages shows no sign of lifting. At the same time, demand for jobs of any wage in Kootenai County continues to rise.
On a recent busy afternoon at the Coeur d’Alene Job Service office along Ironwood Drive, it was easy to take the pulse of the employment market.
Gail Myers wants a job. Any job. After a year and a half looking for a medical assistant job like the one she had in San Diego, “I’ll shovel ditches - whatever it takes.”
The 32-year-old single mother of two thought medical work would be plentiful in fast-growing Kootenai County, where Kootenai Medical Center ranks among the largest employers.
“I can’t even get an interview there,” she said. With a mortgage for her Hayden Lake home hanging over her head, Myers skims through recent listings at the Job Service office in Coeur d’Alene. “I’d take anything at this point.”
Last month, nearly 2,000 people took the time to drive to the new Safeway store on Neider Avenue at Government Way to apply for the 110 jobs there, many of which pay about $5 an hour. Myers was one of them.
Five dollars an hour means barely $10,000 a year in a county where the cost of living - fueled by high housing prices - continues an annual upward march.
The county’s unemployment rate sits at 7.6 percent. That’s not as high as the 9.7 percent recorded in December 1994, but remains much higher than the state of Idaho average, national average and even neighboring Spokane County’s 5.6 percent.
Three big layoffs erased 400 jobs from the county payroll last year. Louisiana-Pacific closed its Post Falls sawmill, Keystone Lighting closed its plant in Hayden and the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park quit live dog racing.
Few would call this a recession. Business in many areas of Kootenai County continues to feed off momentum from five years of growth. Idaho Independent Bank, for instance, recorded record earnings for 1995 and now has plans for a new branch in Boise.
Banks, real estate businesses and service providers like Les Schwab Tires have expanded and prospered. The construction economy that carried Kootenai County on its back for much of the 1990s built the $250,000 homes now occupied by those bankers, real estate brokers and business owners.
But emerging from the first half of the 1990s is a far larger group of underemployed or simply unemployed workers struggling to keep a house, a car, or just fresh milk in the fridge.
The timber industry has become the last hope for decent jobs for those with few skills, but now it has waned. What left for the Kootenai County economy to lean on? Retail and tourism jobs, that, while plentiful, typically pay meager salaries.
Even the jobs at manufacturer Harpers Inc., the county’s economic recruiting prize, average only $7.50 an hour. Over a year, that doesn’t even beat the average Kootenai county wage of about $16,000.
Not everyone struggles. But even those families with skilled jobs are forced to make changes to make ends meet. Peggy Banks was looking for some more part-time work at the Job Service while temporarily laid off from her job at a sewing shop.
Her husband, a mechanic, made good enough wages to support them for several years. But now with children, she took on the job during school months to make ends meet.
“I’d much rather stay at home with my kids,” she said. “We’ve had to make some tough choices.”
For Kenneth Beane, a logger from Harrison, unemployment insurance fills the gaps between jobs for him that last sometimes several weeks.
“And just barely,” he said. “I wouldn’t give up working in the woods for anything. But it’s tough sometimes.”
When Beane’s boss has no work for him or when the bitter cold weather prevents working in the woods, he makes the drive to Coeur d’Alene to hunt for part-time work that will tide him over. He rarely finds it, and made the trip last Friday merely to renew his unemployment.
The employment market likely will worsen as the year progresses, analysts say. Fewer planned construction projects than last year and a gradually slowing home building market will put hundreds and perhaps thousands of craftsmen and laborers on the job market.
Even optimists like Jim Hawkins, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce and a North Idaho native, see leaner times ahead.
Hawkins told legislators last week that the state economy would not be able to produce enough jobs for its high school and college graduates in the coming years.
Bare-bones state budgets for commerce efforts have hurt job training and development efforts, Hawkins said. That will lead to an even tougher job market for Idahoans.
Improving the job picture is the charge of business recruiters like Kootenai County’s Jobs Plus Inc.
In the coming weeks, Westin Hotels and Resorts in Seattle will decide whether to put a service center in Coeur d’Alene, Salt Lake City or in Colorado Springs, Colo.
With the number of eager job-seekers here compared to the other cities that have far lower unemployment, Jobs Plus likes Coeur d’Alene’s chances.
It could mean 150 jobs, although many of them would handle telephone reservations and would not pay a lot. Some would be in accounting, which would pay far better and have great benefits, the company said.
If the Safeway experience is any indicator, Westin, should it choose the Lake City, can expect quite a few applicants.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Tough times Telltale signs of the state of Kootenai County’s economy: The county’s unemployment rate is 7.6 percent - not as high as the 9.7 percent recorded in December 1994, but much higher than the state of Idaho average, national average and even neighboring Spokane County’s 5.6 percent. Three big layoffs last year - at Louisiana Pacific’s Post Falls sawmill, Keystone Lighting in Hayden and at the Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park, which quit live dog racing - erased 400 jobs from the county payroll. Analysts say the employment market likely will worsen as the year progresses.
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