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Vestal: Entry-level jobs highly desired

After taking the civil service test, Scott Smith waited two years to be hired by the city of Spokane. He currently works in the wastewater department. Here he mows the  swale at Ray Street and Hartson Avenue.  (Dan Pelle)
After taking the civil service test, Scott Smith waited two years to be hired by the city of Spokane. He currently works in the wastewater department. Here he mows the swale at Ray Street and Hartson Avenue. (Dan Pelle)

City expects flood of applicants for few slots

At his new job, 47-year-old Scott J. Smith does all the rookie stuff: janitor work, mowing grass, unclogging pipes and drains.

“It’s definitely a hands-dirty type of job,” said Smith. “It’s not for the squeamish.”

It’s like he won the lottery or something.

Call it the Laborer I lottery.

Laborer I is Smith’s job classification in the wastewater department of the city of Spokane. It’s the entry-level, shovel-wielding, hard-work category of city workers, and they’re likely to be among Spokane’s most sought-after jobs when the city opens its civil-service exams this fall.

“It could be pretty significant this time around,” said Glenn Kibbey, chief examiner for the city’s civil service department.

Kibbey is cautious about predicting numbers, but if the recent rate of increase for other positions – such as last year’s booming pool of applicants for garbage collector – is any indication, the number of people who take the Laborer I test could approach 900 or more.

In a typical year, the city might hire a dozen of them. Skills aside, that’s a 1-in-75 shot. Of course, the payoff – especially now, in job-starved 2010 – is significant: You start at thirty-two grand a year, with good benefits.

And if you’re lucky enough to work in one of the city’s revenue-producing departments, like Smith, you don’t face the same economic vagaries as tax-supported positions like police officers and firefighters. Hiring for those positions is frozen, and the possibility of layoffs hovers. But in departments supported by user fees – such as sewer and garbage – there is no freeze. And it’s not like people are going to stop producing sewage.

The city offers its civil-service exams in two-year cycles, building a pool of applicants for later openings. When Smith took the test in October 2008, he was one of 333.

“I was shocked,” he said. “The whole place was filled with people from all walks of life, from teenage girls to old men. … You’ve got to assume the economy has a lot to do with that.”

The county’s jobless rate then was 5.1 percent. The economy had already begun imploding, but the implosion was still trickling down to Main Street. In the following few months, the unemployment rate here doubled. It’s been stuck at around 9 percent for months on end, and competition for jobs has intensified. Last year, more than 500 people took the city’s test for Refuse Collector I – up more than 165 percent over 2007.

Smith ranked 22nd out of his pool of applicants. A former manager of an injection molding firm in Utah, he had a small home business working on classic cars and a small savings to help cover his expenses. He was not desperate for work, but wanted to get health benefits and a retirement plan.

More than a year passed before he got his first interview, with the solid waste department. He didn’t get the job. Then he got an interview in the water department. Didn’t get it. His third interview landed him at the wastewater department in March.

Kibbey said it’s not unusual to have such a wait. He himself took the city’s civil-service exam, for the category Analyst I, when he moved back to Spokane in 1992. He was ranked No. 8 in his pool; it was a year and a half before he landed on the city payroll.

Even in good times, there’s a lot of competition.

Smith’s nearing the six-month mark on the job, halfway through his probationary period. A former manager who wore a tie to work, he says he doesn’t mind being at the bottom of the totem pole for now. He plans to earn his commercial driver’s license, which would allow him to drive the big trucks the department uses to clear clogs and debris from pipes and drains, and would give him a bump up the pay ladder.

He likes working at a place with good prospects and benefits. He notes that a couple of people retired from his department recently – both with more than 30 years on the job. He likes his co-workers. Enjoys the work itself.

In this day and age, it’s a man-bites-dog story: The guy who got a job.

“I’m thrilled,” he said. “I’m very happy.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or