The information-technology employees at Walgreens, the drugstore chain, didn't need government statisticians to tell them about historically low unemployment rates.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that the unemployment rate had fallen to 4.1 percent nationwide, the lowest it has been in 28 years. But at Walgreens, the tight labor market became abundantly clear more than a year earlier.
What else would explain that Ford Explorer?
In January 1997 and again this year, Walgreens offered the high-priced utility vehicle as an incentive to its information-technology employees--a particularly scarce category of workers--to get them to recruit friends, family, or acquaintances to the company. Any employee in the department who recommended someone who was hired received a $1,500 bonus and had their name entered into a drawing for a one-year lease on an Explorer. The winner got the car, a year's worth of car insurance, and a specially marked parking space at the corporate headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois.
"All they had to do was buy gas," says company spokesman Michael Polzin.
Walgreens workers are not the only ones clued into the advantages of a low unemployment rate.
Nationwide, employees and job-seekers are learning just how pleasant it can be when companies need workers and can't find them easily. At Northern Telecom in Richardson, managers don't distribute leases to vehicles, but they do offer employees who help hire new colleagues up to $1,200 bonuses, according to a spokesman.
For fresh college graduates, job-hunting is a heady experience these days.
"It's awesome. It's the best thing going right now. People are being inundated with offers," says Bradley Richardson, a Dallas-based author of career guidance books and a seminar speaker on the subject. "They are getting a couple of grand for a signing bonus at the entry level."
Richardson says the labor scarcities have meant job-seekers can now ask prospective employers for what in the past would have been viewed as absurd or outlandish requests--a refrigerator in their workspace or permission to bring their dog to work.
Employers are also becoming more tolerant of workers who switch jobs often. "Job-hopping is no longer frowned upon," Richardson says. "The companies don't like it, but they will hire the workers anyway, because they need good people."
Job-hopping can do wonders for a paycheck. Brynn Mow, a partner at Dallas Technology Group, which helps place high-tech workers, says she has seen candidates increase their salaries by $20,000 to $50,000 in one year's time.
For some older workers, the good times have improved what before were miserable odds at getting a job.
John Challenger, an executive vice president at Outplacement Services, a firm that companies hire to help them find jobs for workers they are laying off, says he has seen the average job-search time drop from five to six months down to three months. He has also seen employers begin to shed some of the discriminatory practices they used in the past--as a matter of pragmatism. They need good workers, so it doesn't matter what color, nationality, or age category they fall into. Challenger says he recently had the task of helping find a job for a 55-year-old in the insurance industry who had been laid off. "He entered the job market with a monkey on his back," recalls Challenger. "He was angry about the deal he had gotten, and he didn't think he would find a job."
But within weeks, Challenger says, the guy had found a job that paid better than his previous position. He was hired to sell fire-protection equipment, a growing field in the Dallas market.
Along Central Expressway, particularly in Collin County, where the unemployment rates dipped to 2 percent in March, managers at the restaurants and big-box retail chain stores along the highway have hung large banners above their door fronts: "NOW HIRING." At other locations, one usually only has to step inside to find pitches for "good, friendly, smiling people who want to work in friendly environment."
The low unemployment rates have led to some not-so-wonderful choices for consumers. If you want to have someone come to the house to fix a small leak or finish some yard work, for example, do it yourself.
Subcontractors have so much trouble finding help, they can't afford to say yes to small jobs. General contractors say they have detected a marked difference in the attitude of subcontractors. "Give us the job. We don't give bids," a plumber told a general contractor recently. "It was, I have to say, a novel approach," says the general contractor, who opted not to hire the plumber but had trouble finding another to replace him.
Landscape contractors express similar sentiments. "That job doesn't sound big enough for us," remarked one landscaper recently when he was asked about a nearly $500 proposal.
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If your children take the school bus, you may want to look closely and make sure there is a driver in the seat.
In the Plano schools, they are desperate for bus drivers as well as crossing guards and cafeteria workers. The sign outside a Plano high school asks for applicants and then promises, "We'll train," not a particularly comforting note to parents. School district officials did not return calls for this story.
There are also some unexpected consequences to the low unemployment.
Maurice Elvekrog, a psychologist in Michigan who studies investment patterns, says that the contributions to 401k plans or retirement savings accounts have slid recently. "It's expectations," Elvekrog says, "We all tend to assume the good times will last forever."
Oddly, the boom times also seem to have affected the number of people calling gambling hot lines for help. Edward Looney, the director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling, says this past year was the first since he began the hot line for troubled bettors that the number of calls has dropped. In 1997, Looney's organization had 26,000 calls. When gamblers telephone the hot line, Looney's workers ask them if they are unemployed. This year, fewer unemployed gamblers called. "We don't know what this is all about," says Looney.