Workers looking for the way forward

Those with jobs fear losing them; job seekers aim to hone right skills

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoResults of fourth annual workplace confidence survey. Click image to enlarge.

Some of us are still worried about losing our jobs.

A majority of us are stressed out at work for one reason or another.

And, in the face of a tough labor market, plenty of us have thought about going back to school.

Those are just some of the conclusions drawn from a new survey of Washington residents aimed at gauging how secure they feel about their jobs and what actions they might take to improve their situation.

Among the findings of the fourth-annual “workplace confidence” survey -- conducted by Harris/Decima, a global public opinion and market research firm, for Everest College:

• 32 percent of workers were very or somewhat concerned about losing their jobs. That compares with 30 percent in 2011.

• 60 percent of workers said they suffer from some form of work-related stress. The top stress factor was pay (25 percent), followed by fear of losing their job (19 percent).

• 42 percent of workers have considered returning to school, either to boost their career or to train for a new one.

Four years after the economic crash, workers are still nervous about where they stand in the workplace, as the survey results illustrate. That is, if you have a job to be chewing your nails about. Nearly 13 million Americans don’t. Unemployment rates in Washington state and the U.S. are 8.3 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. In Clark County, joblessness is roughly 11 percent.

While the data generated by the Harris/Decima survey are new, the worker attitudes they describe aren’t. For some time now, experts say, Americans have fretted about keeping their jobs in a world where off-shored jobs, economic shocks and stagnant pay seem to be the norm.

Vancouver resident Ed Forsyth, 44, who has a degree in business administration, understands that world. He also understands the need to ramp up -- or completely change -- your skill set.

He lost his job with a home-remodeling and repair contractor to the Great Recession.

But he dusted himself off and went back to school -- to Washington State University Vancouver to pursue a degree in psychology.

With a 3.8 grade point average, he’s excelling and close to graduating. But he doesn’t think his job prospects in the counseling field are even close to being good. So he’s probably going to go after a master’s degree.

By the time he nails that down, perhaps the economy will have finally gotten some real wind in its sails. “Now,” Forsyth said, “there’s just a huge amount of uncertainty out there.”

Job security in doubt

The uncertainty described by Forsyth isn’t a recent phenomenon, according to Tahira Probst, professor of psychology at Washington State University Vancouver.

Her presentation last year on the WSUV campus, “Economic Stress and Job Insecurity: Implications for Employers and Organizations,” delved into what she described as the disconnect between the “economic realities of today” and what people actually want from their jobs.

The reality is that job security has decreased with the rise of global competition, outsourcing, technological changes and other factors, Probst said. And while workers may move from one company to another, what hasn’t changed is what they want from a job: security.

But data suggest that feelings of job insecurity will persist. Probst cited a 1997 survey of 21 countries showing the U.S. ranked the highest in job insecurity: 52 percent of workers perceived their jobs as being unstable and only 38 percent believed good performance would protect their jobs.

And, from 1996 to 2010, Probst said, an average of 2 million U.S. workers have been laid off annually.

Employers can take steps to lessen the negative effects of job insecurity, according to Probst. Those steps include: giving employees more freedom to decide how to do their jobs and what performance goals they will pursue; increasing their role in the company’s decision-making process; and communicating with them in an effective -- and trustworthy -- manner.

Likewise, workers may act to improve their own job security, said Jeanne Bennett, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, the nonprofit that oversees job training programs and helps employers recruit workers.

Workers, she said, should take stock of their skills and figure out what additional ones they need to make themselves indispensable to their employer.

It’s “taking those positive steps,” she said, including everything from sharpening your résumé to taking courses at a community college.

In fact, Clark College has seen record enrollment due, at least in part, to people giving chase to training or new careers amid fallout from the economic crash.

In fall 2007, just as the U.S. financial crisis was beginning to spread, 13,226 students were enrolled at the college. By fall 2010, enrollment was 16,185 -- a 22 percent increase. Enrollment dipped a bit in fall 2011, when Clark welcomed 15,867 students.

‘It’s got to get better’

Part of the reason Washington residents remain worried about their jobs is that one in five of them, according to the survey, said someone in their household lost their job in the past 12 months, noted John Swartz, regional director of career services for Everest College, which has two schools in Vancouver.

“It’s getting better,” Swartz said of the economy, “but we’ve still got some wood to chop.”

Indeed. The U.S. economic recovery has, if anything, been more technical than whole-hearted. While the odds of finding a job are improving, they’re still “stacked against job seekers,” according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., in a report it issued this month.

The current “job seekers ratio” -- the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings -- has declined moderately to 3.4-to-1, according to the institute. However, there is no major job sector in which the odds for job seekers are strong, according to the think tank, “underscoring that the main issue in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers, not workers being in the wrong sectors or having the wrong skills.”

Meanwhile, the fight over sovereign debt and austerity measures in Europe continues to send tremors across the globe, casting shadows over the potential for a more robust recovery to take hold.

If those tremors end up directly threatening the jobs of Washington residents, they seem poised to go elsewhere for work, at least according to the Harris/Decima survey.

It found that 36 percent of respondents, if they lost their jobs, would consider leaving the state to search for a new job, with men significantly more likely than women to look for a job outside of the state by a margin of 42 percent to 30 percent.

Forsyth, the Vancouver resident who embraced change in the face of a seismic economic shift, didn’t have to leave his community in pursuit of a new career.

He’s made friends at WSUV. He sees himself becoming a counselor to people suffering from addiction. But his path to find a different job also has come at a significant cost: He’s piled up student debt like cord wood.

Nevertheless, he’s glad he had the gumption to bounce back from being laid off a few years ago. It wasn’t easy to go back to school, to do the intense reading and studying it takes to make it through the exams.

He knows it sounds corny, Forsyth said, but it really does boil down to believing in yourself.

Now, if only the economy would more fully come around.

“It’s got to get better one of these days,” he said.

Aaron Corvin: 360-735-4518; http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.