Pains of a growing labor force

Elko has been labeled as the town the recession skipped, largely because of the high levels of employment provided by northeastern Nevada mining companies and the high salaries enjoyed by area miners.

But the January unemployment figure of 8.1 percent in the Elko region represents a full percentage point increase from December 2009's 7.1 percent, and it's up by 2.4 percentage points over the same month a year ago.

The statistics include Elko and Eureka counties.

Of the region's total labor force of 27,410 people, an estimated 2,220 were unemployed in January. In December there were 1,940 people unemployed in the area.

Jared McDonald, economist for Research and Analysis Bureau with the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, says a significant increase in unemployment insurance claims in the Elko region in January led the state to boost its estimate of the number of jobless people in the region.

McDonald says the claims increase most likely was caused by a combination of seasonal layoffs and people moving into the area.

But Elko businesses aren't closing or laying off staff as have businesses in other parts of the state, says Joanne Storms, branch manager of Job Opportunities in Nevada. Storms says that as word spread that there is work to be found in Elko, the county has seen an influx of new residents hoping to find jobs, and it's primarily those new residents who have pushed up the unemployment figure.

"People are coming here from Reno and Las Vegas because they hear there is work here, not to mention we have a lot of people coming in from all over: Georgia, Florida, and neighboring states like Idaho and Utah.

"They don't realize that they can't come here and just go to work at the mines. The mines hired skilled labor, and even if they are able to go to work there, there is a three- to four-month hiring process."

Adds John Rice, director of institutional advancement for Great Basin College, "People have come to Elko seeking jobs, and they are not getting them because they don't have skills and they are applying for unemployment here."

State employment economists estimate that the Elko region's labor force grew by about 900 people from January 2009 through January 2010.

But job growth didn't keep pace. The region added 400 jobs during the 12-month period.

Scott Hase, rural district manager for Nevada JobConnect, says the rising unemployment in Elko also is the result of the economic challenges faced by the rest of the state finally catching up to eastern Nevada. Tourism and gaming revenues are down, as are retail sales, and area businesses have tightened employment as a result. Employment in the county also is impacted by the end of holiday spending in January and lack of construction projects to employ area laborers, Hase says.

"Mining is staying real steady, but the overall economy is starting to affect us. The tourist season hasn't really started, and construction is down because of the weather and the economy. Developers having hard time getting funding and are putting developments on hold."

Hase says that gold in the $1,100-an-ounce range led many people to falsely believe that Elko was recession-proof.

"There are jobs to be had, but the truth of the matter is that most of the jobs available are skilled jobs. You just don't come out here get an interview and go to work tomorrow."

JOIN expects the region's job market to open back up in April through June but doesn't expect to see a big spike in mining employment. One area that still enjoys high demand, Storms says, is commercial truck drivers.

JobConnect offers commercial driving training and also works with employers who hire untrained drivers to pay a portion of wages while that drives works toward commercial certification. JobConnect is funded through the Department of Labor.

Elko typically sees more job seekers in winter months, Storms says. JOIN has seen a 70 percent rise in dislocated workers in the first three months of the year. Dislocated workers are workers who have proof they've been laid off from their last position.

"We are seeing more people than ever coming in saying that they have never been on unemployment, and we don't expect to see any change in the near future."

If the recession has come late to Elko County, it won't catch local businesspeople unawares as it did in other parts of the state, Storms says. Local businesses are being cautious about hiring so that they don't over-extend themselves.

"Everyone is scaling back a little bit and preparing for the worst-case scenario," she says.

McDonald predicts the state and national economies will remain weak during the next year or two, which will keep gold prices high and further strengthen the mining industry.

"A lot of what goes on is driven by mining, and because mining is doing so good Elko has avoided a deep recession as compared to rest of state," he says. "They also have more diversification, and they are not solely relying on gaming."

Storms says the Elko JOIN office also has seen a spike in job seekers requesting Mine Safety and Health Administration training, as well as the OSHA 10- and 30-hour training mandated by the state Legislature for construction workers. JOIN refers job candidates to approved training providers.

Nevada JobConnect also has seen increased interest in free workshops that help jobseekers interview well. The workshops are held in conjunction with the Elko County Library.

"We are hoping that will be a real big seller for us," Hase says. "People need to know about how to go looking for work, and most people don't."


Job seekers boost enrollment at Great Basin College

Elko residents seeking mine-related training have increased enrollment at Great Basin College. John Rice, director of institutional advancement, says enrollment has increased 20 percent in the past two to three years.

Interest in Great Basin's mining-related technical knowledge courses welding, diesel technology, electrical and instrumentation technology has spiked, but enrollment has climbed in every discipline, Rice says. Enrollment at community colleges historically increases during times of recession as laid-off workers seek higher education.

Enrollment for the fall 2009 semester jumped 10 percent. Total enrollment at Great Basin College is about 3,400 full- and part-time students.

Another factor for increased student body: Cost.

"Part of the reason our enrollment is going up is because it is simply less expensive to go to school here," Rice says.

Yet another reason: Great Basin offers baccalaureate degrees. For many people in Nevada's far-flung rural counties, the college is the only option for traditional higher education. Great Basin College draws much of its enrollment from a 62,000-square-mile service area.

NNBW staff


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