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Unemployed get in line for Northland jobs

DULUTH - John Powley, a construction worker from Duluth, has been out of work since August. He has been looking, but to date has had no luck finding a job.

"I see a lot of stuff like hospital jobs, but almost nothing for blue-collar workers like me," Powley said as he poked through listings on a computer at the Job Service office in Duluth.

His predicament is all too common in the current economy. There are many more people looking for work than there are jobs available.

In fact, for every open job in Northeastern Minnesota, there were more than eight unemployed people actively searching for work in December 2008, the most recent month for which job vacancy data is available.

It's doubtful that anything has improved in 2009. More likely things have gotten worse, as unemployment in the Arrowhead -- St. Louis, Carlton, Lake, Cook, Aitkin, Itasca and Koochiching counties -- leapt 28 percent in January from 14,143 people to 18,159.

"I know it's really tough. But there are still jobs out there," said Drew Digby, a regional labor analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

He acknowledged, however, that good jobs are attracting scores of applicants.

"If you're looking for work, you're probably going to face a lot of competition," Digby said.

Vicki Thoen, an accounting and human resources manager for Epicurean Cutting Surfaces, a Duluth manufacturer of kitchen boards, recently posted an opening for a CNC (computer numerical controlled) machine operator. In short order, it received about 70 applications.

"A lot of the applicants weren't really qualified. I'd say about half of them were not properly trained. But I think that probably shows just how desperate people are," she said.

Betsy Harmon, manager of the Job Service office in Duluth, posted a temporary opening for a similar office in Virginia. Within two days, she received more than 80 applications for the full-time job paying north of $15 per hour. Harmon said she was impressed with the caliber of the candidate pool.

"It's hard for jobseekers, but if you're an employer, you have the luxury of being able to pick from the best of the best right now," she said.

Digby often encourages unemployed workers to consider opportunities in new fields. He pointed out that retraining assistance is available for many people out of work.

"Now is not a bad time to retrain," he said. "Most of us agree the economy of the future will look better, but the shape of the work force may be much different. We may not have the same kinds of jobs as we did 10 years ago."

Powley, for one, is laying plans to go back to school to train for work as a helicopter pilot.

"Up until now, I've sort of rolled with the punches. I've been a johnny of all trades, and I've been able to get by," he said. But based on his recent experiences Powley, has concluded it's time for a new strategy.