Job hunters settle for lower-paying gigs

As unemployment rises in Southern Oregon, some job hunters are settling for lower-paying positions than the ones they formerly had.

The Jackson County unemployment rate hit 7 percent in July, but there are plenty of openings for customer service jobs and entry-level health-related positions.

The Oregon Employment Department in the past year published 172 ads for retail salespeople and 141 for customer service representatives in Jackson and Josephine counties, the fields most advertised on the department's Web site.

The average income for a retail worker in Jackson County was $26,818. Working 40 hours a week every week of the year, the average retail worker would earn about $13 per hour.

Many make far less. For example, a courtesy clerk at a Safeway store starts at $8.05 per hour and, working full time, would make just $16,744 per year.

Selectemp, a Medford employment agency, has consistently seen vacancies in customer service fields and in insurance, Medford branch manager Trina Bitz said.

"Employers are looking for people with great experience and qualifications," she said.

But for those who don't have the necessary experience, re-evaluating the applicant's skills is a necessity, Bitz said. "We look at transferable skills, and how we can move them to a new position. We've always done that."

Bitz said the only place she's seen any change is how many applications Selectemp takes in daily, an average of about 15.

"There have been more people looking for work," Bitz said. "And there's always people looking for better work."

Regional economist Guy Tauer said customer service and food service positions tend to have the highest turnover rates, which increases job opportunities. Tauer's forecast for the next 10 years suggests two-thirds of all new hires will be replacement openings. The others will be new hires.

A person who works a minimum wage job for 40 hours a week earns $318. According to the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, the living wage — the amount a family must bring in to meet basic needs without public assistance — for a single adult was $11.67 in 2007. That's $466.80 per week, or $148.80 (32 percent) more than a person working for minimum wage ($7.95 per hour) would take home.

For a family of four, two working adults must bring home a combined $31.34 per hour, almost four times the minimum wage.

Those who cannot find a job, may — with the right qualifications — receive Oregon unemployment benefits. The average unemployment benefit for the week of Aug. 11 was $273, said Craig Spivey, spokesman for the Oregon Employment Department.

"You would be much better off taking a paying job," Spivey said.

Stacey Barchenger is an intern at the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4464 or e-mail

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