Monday, November 18, 2002

If The Economy Is Improving, What Are These 150 Resumes Doing Here?

I wanted to lead this week's column with a quote that "the plural of 'anecdote' isn't 'facts'" but I couldn't find the attribution from a source I trusted in time for my deadline. It's been absolutely amazing the number of resumes we've gotten for our file clerk position, as well as the qualifications of some of the applicants. Spooky. Is my law firm that good a place to work, or are we that lucky to have a job?

Here's the link to the column in yesterday's East Valley Tribune. My editor put the final two sentences of the fifth graf in larger type. I would have probably used the lines about the universities bearing the brunt of the cuts, but that's our differences in ideology for you. Rather dire headline, too. And on Sunday, the Cardinals didn't do anything to make the last line less appropriate.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 18, 2002

It’s probably only random chance if I draw accurate conclusions about the economy based only on my experience. But if the recent experience of our small law firm means anything, it’s a pretty sickly job market.

We need a new file clerk. Now, I like my law firm and think it’s a great place to work, but not everybody may agree, and working as a file clerk -- organizing paper for 10 busy lawyers -- is not necessarily a dream job.

When we last needed a file clerk, about two years ago, we got maybe three responses. This past week, our want ad for a file clerk drew over 150 resumes. Our receptionist had to alphabetize them just to keep track. And we’re still getting more.

I doubt that classified advertising became that much more effective over the past two years (although if it has, you can call The Tribune at (480) 898-6465; operators are standing by!). Despite relatively stable unemployment figures overall, the job market at the entry level and in the “FIRE” (finance, insurance, and real estate) and related sectors seems the weakest we’ve seen in Arizona in years.

This glut of job applicants may help us find our new file clerk more quickly than two years ago. And a too-tight job market can harm future economic development; new businesses avoid locations where it’s too hard to hire new employees. But this “loose” a job market can’t be good news for Arizona.

So here are two economic predictions, based solely on personal experience and reading the newspapers. Hey, it’s bad data, but I have about the same chance of being right as those business page experts:

Budget estimates will be wrong, again. Just as state budget wonks consistently underestimated revenues during the boom years, estimates during the current economic malaise will understate both the drop in revenues and the squeeze on downturn-sensitive spending.

Perhaps the economic models didn’t account for how boom market gains goosed revenues, and will miss how much recently-accumulated losses will depress revenues for several years. Perhaps retail sales estimates are missing how much consumers are spending through catalogs or over the Internet, avoiding state taxes.

Whatever the reason, expect a repeat of this year’s budget performance for the next year or two (or more). The Legislature will strain and groan, painfully adopt a budget, and then have to return for special sessions for additional mid-year cuts when revenues don’t meet forecasts.

We’ll sell the future short. We did something remarkable this past spring in raising a combination of (mainly) public and (some) private funds for the International Genomics Consortium. We don’t do that much around here; cooperation isn’t seen as a virtue, and spending money on science and research (instead of tax cuts) contradicts the prevailing ideology. But it took lots of highly professional spin, salesmanship, and misdirection (remember those other cities allegedly bidding for the IGC? Well, neither do they.) It’s a remarkable orchestration, not likely to be repeated.

Instead, this year’s budget battles will slice funding for the three state universities. Our best hope for attracting and growing top-tier jobs is by having first-rate institutions of higher education. The universities are our “seed corn” for the future. Instead, we’ll grind them into short-term “telemarketing tacos.” In our term limits world, only losers worry about the future.

Perhaps our new governor can prevent it. But I also recall what a difference a new head coach supposedly would make for the Arizona Cardinals -- several times already. Let’s hope a good governor with a bad Legislature does better than a good coach with a bad team.

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