News & Updates from LWIA

Job Picture Improves, but Challenges Remain
Posted on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at 6:50 AM

Jim Martin

Erie Times News


The latest unemployment rate -- just 4.9 percent -- reflects not only an economy on the mend, but what economists often call full employment.


But job hunter Tammy Sanden is among those who say good jobs are still hard to find in Erie.


That's not true in all cases, of course.


Garrett Lindahl, human resources manager for Roberts Trucking, Warehousing and Logistics in North East, said he's prepared to hire an experienced truck driver any day of the week, with pay ranging from $37,000 to $55,000.


Erie Insurance has openings for more than a dozen information technology specialists.


A long list of tool shops are looking for CNC operators.


But Sanden isn't any of those things.


She's a 45-year-old mother of one who spent the past 24 years as a telephone operator at Verizon Communications. She lost her job when the company closed its Erie call center in December.


And she, by all appearances, is one of many Erie County residents struggling to find a well-paying job that matches her skills.


The good news is that fewer people are looking for work these days.


In November, 6,400 people were counted as unemployed in Erie County, down from 9,000 one year earlier.


Rick Cornwell, site administrator for the Pennsylvania CareerLink office in Erie County, has another way to measure the local employment picture.


"When I started two years ago, there were about 150 people (job seekers) through the door each day," he said. Now, "it's down to about 80."


The list of employers looking for workers seems to get longer as the line of available workers outside his door grows shorter, Cornwell said.


But for unemployed and underemployed workers, frustration remains a reality.


More than 100 people responded to a question posted on's Facebook account asking about the employment situation in Erie.


A clear majority said the current unemployment rate wasn't an accurate reflection of the local job market.


One woman wrote: "I have been trying to look for over a year for a full-time job since my company that I worked for 13 years closed. There is nothing out there. Everything is part-time or pays nothing."


Many of the jobs available are lower-paying, but Cornwell flatly rejects the suggestion that the Erie market has nothing else to offer.


There are numerous openings for truck drivers, engineers, quality control employees and a wide range of health-care positions, including nurses and physician assistants, he said.


"What we have is a skills gap," Cornwell said. "There is a definite gap between what job (seekers) are out there and what employers are looking for."


On the manufacturing side, the challenge is likely to only grow, he said.


"We are not quite to the panic mode, but we are getting there," Cornwell said. "The concern is that the baby boomer generation is retiring ... and the skills that are needed in manufacturing are going out the door."


Kurt Duska, the former owner and now the director of sales and marketing for Engineered Plastics in Erie, shares that concern.


"I think there is an abundance of low-skilled employees in Erie," he said. "The problem is there is not the skill set required for a lot of the most critical operations most companies have."


Part of the problem can be blamed on a lack of training, he said.


But it's also a reflection on a changing culture.


"When I graduated high school, guys worked on their cars. Most of them could crank a wrench. The kids just don't have the opportunity to do that anymore," Duska said.


Although Erie County's unemployment rate has improved dramatically, down 2 full percentage points from December 2013, there's widespread suspicion that those numbers don't tell the entire story.


One reader commented on Facebook: "How many people aren't even being counted because they have dropped out of the official statistics because they can't get work? This great unemployment number is a lie."


Ken Louie, director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie at Penn State Behrend's Black School of Business, doesn't call the unemployment rate a lie, but he said it might not tell the whole story.


While the U.S. seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in January, what some call the true unemployment rate -- which counts people who are working part time when they want to work full time -- pegs the unemployment rate at 11.3 percent.


Local figures aren't available, but Louie said the shrinking size of the labor participation rate is a worrisome sign.


"I guess it's safe to say we would prefer a growing labor force," Louie said.


While the decline in the number of people working or looking for work isn't dramatic, it hints that some are discouraged or have given up.


"It tells us that the economy isn't expanding in a significant way," he said.


Tammy Sanden worries that things aren't as good as they look. Or maybe, she wonders, her skills aren't what the marketplace wants.


"I'm so used to working, I feel like I'm not pulling my weight," she said, adding she doubts she will ever land a job as good as the one she lost.


"I don't think it's encouraging," she said. "I will find something. I just want it now."

JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at


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