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The fifth annual job fair at ATV drew record numbers. (Mike Enright/Echo Press)

Job slump sharpens interest in new careers

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His blue button-up shirt neatly ironed, his tie tightly knotted, John Smith walked down a familiar hallway last Wednesday before passing through the propped-open doors of the Alexandria Technical College gymnasium.

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It was his first time back since graduating from the school with a degree in fluid power technology.

It was also the Alexandria area resident's first time ever attending a job fair.

"I'm nervous," said Smith, who asked that his real name not be used for this story. "I've never been in this situation before."

Smith was one of roughly 800 people who attended last week's fifth annual Greater Alexandria Area Job Fair, put on by the Alexandria Business and Employers Council.

Organizers said the turnout was one of the biggest ever in the event's short history, matching the record-setting numbers seen at last year's fair.

"I think this was a good sign for the event, in and of itself," said Pat Kalina, marketing director for the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission.

"Potentially, if nobody came I would think that means everybody has jobs," Kalina added. "But even last year there was a huge turnout that we had never seen before, and there was employment all over the place [then]."

That's not the case this year.

"It's a pretty tight market," Smith said. "Not too many places are currently hiring."

After graduating from Alex Tech in 1994, Smith said he worked for 10 years at a metro area industrial company before getting a chance to move back to Alexandria when a local manufacturing firm recently hired him.

But business had been very slow lately, Smith said, and, consequently, he was laid off a few weeks ago. He's not alone.

With the U.S. economy still mired in a recession, American employers cut nearly 600,000 jobs last month, raising the national unemployment rate from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent, according to a February 6 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"In January, job losses were large and widespread across nearly all major industry sectors," the report stated.

In December, roughly 11,800 Minnesotans lost their jobs as the state's unemployment rate reached a seasonally adjusted 6.9 percent, up from 6.4 percent in November.

Following statewide trends, Douglas County's unemployment rate spiked to 6.4 percent in December, up from 5.3 percent in November and 4.9 percent a year earlier.

Kalina said overall the Alexandria area has fared better during the economic slump than many places in Minnesota and all around the country.

"We are insulated," he said, "because we have a very well-balanced mix of industry."

But while this year's job fair had roughly the same turnout as in 2008, the types of people attending last Wednesday could be a sign that the slowdown is starting to hit locally as well.

"The job-seekers that were here were a different group than last year," Kalina said. "Last year we had a lot of students. This year we still had students, but on a smaller count."

"There were more professionals [this year]," he said.

Of the 33 employers participating in this year's fair, several said they had never seen so many qualified applicants.

"I think the caliber of people that came through this year were much higher [than in the past]," said Katie Jerde of Alexandria-based Tastefully Simple, one of the few businesses at the fair Wednesday that are actively hiring.

"Many, many employers said they wish they had more openings," Kalina said.

Smith said he's never seen so much competition for jobs in his industry as he has lately.

"I applied at a job locally here that deal with a little bit of fluid power," he said. "They said they had over 65 applicants come in for one job."

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