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Originally published November 18, 2009 at 12:09 AM | Page modified November 18, 2009 at 2:25 PM

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State's jobless rate lets employers ask more from potential hires

With the state's jobless rate bouncing between 8.9 percent and 9.3 percent for months, companies seem to be raising the bar for job seekers.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Finding a job in Washington isn't getting harder, at least according to state unemployment figures, but it sure isn't getting any easier.

Since March, the state jobless rate has bounced between 8.9 percent and 9.3 percent, and the number of people seeking work has consistently been in the low 300,000s. Those numbers suggest that after the free fall of late 2008 and early 2009, Washington's economy has more or less stabilized, albeit at historically high levels of unemployment.

But the long, grinding recession has allowed employers to demand a lot more from potential hires, as some recent local job listings illustrate.

One health-care clinic, for example, wanted someone who had both marketing experience and knowledge of computer-networking software.

An environmental nonprofit was looking for someone who could troubleshoot Apple computers, lift up to 50 pounds, work long hours and travel up to seven days at a stretch.

And a catering company sought an event planner who also knew basic HTML and would be willing to do "personal assistant tasks" for the owner.

"It's a little bizarre out there right now," said Tracy Lorelli of Seattle, who was laid off from her marketing job in July. "They're looking for one person who can do a ridiculous amount of unrelated things for $32,000 a year."

Companies of all sizes are advertising such "hybrid jobs" in an effort to save money, said Lanell Flint, Northwest vice president for Ajilon Professional Staffing. "Everyone is trying to do more with less," she said.

That's also been the experience of Jana Rekosh of Seattle, a friend of Lorelli's who lost her job as a graphic designer in March and is now working a part-time seasonal job at Macy's.

"A lot of the jobs I've been looking at seem to be a little bit of everything," Rekosh said. "It makes you wonder, 'Who else is in the office?' Is it just the CEO and one other person?"

Flint said there's another reason more companies — especially small and midsize ones — are including long lists of required skills and work experience for each opening: no time or money for on-the-job training.

She said one manager told her, "I absolutely need someone with this software experience and these skills, because I will not be able to give them one minute of my time once they get here."

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During a recession, "employers can be much more choosy than they could in the past," said Vandra Huber, a professor of human-resources management at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business.

But even in good times, Huber said, companies have become more careful about hiring. That's partly because specific skills have become more important for many jobs, and partly out of fear of being sued for firing someone.

Some retailers, for instance, now give applicants written "honesty tests," even though such tests often peg honest people as potential thieves. "They'd rather screen good people out than let one thief in," Huber said.

Many large companies, Flint added, have drawn out the hiring process — leaving positions open for a long time or bringing people in for multiple interviews.

"Hiring managers see that there's a plethora of candidates on the market," she said. "The worse unemployment gets, the more the mentality of corporate America is 'There should be all these people out there with all these skills — let's go get 'em.' "

Things could be worse.

Juju.com, a job-search site, recently ranked Seattle 20th out of 50 metro areas in terms of job-hunting ease.

According to Juju, there are six unemployed people in Seattle per advertised job. (Washington, D.C., and Baltimore topped Juju's list; Detroit and St. Louis brought up the rear.)

The state's jobless rate edged up to a seasonally adjusted 9.3 percent in October, the Employment Security Department reported Tuesday. That's the same rate first reported for September, though after further analysis the September rate was revised down to 9.1 percent.

In the Seattle metro area, however, the unemployment rate jumped more than half a percentage point to 9.3 percent, bringing it in sync with the rest of the state for the first time since the downturn started.

The difficulty of finding work has caused many jobless people to give up, at least for now. The "official" unemployment figures don't count people who have stopped looking for work, people working part time who would rather be full time, or other such "marginally attached" or underemployed workers.

The federal government's broadest gauge of joblessness puts Washington's "underemployment" rate about 6.7 percentage points higher than the official unemployment rate.

Whatever number you prefer to watch, high unemployment is likely to persist. IHS Global Insight, a consulting and forecasting firm, predicts Washington won't return to its peak employment level of 2,974,900 jobs, set in February 2008, until sometime in 2012.

Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or ddesilver@seattletimes.com

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