By Wayne Bell
When I moved back to Northwest Arkansas two years ago, I thought I was “all that.” I had just finished a teaching stint in Northwest Florida and had completed my master’s degree with honors. I thought that after I got settled in Northwest Arkansas, I would simply go find a nice job.
That was the beginning of three of the hardest months of my life. It ended with a job that I truly enjoy, but it never looked hopeful until the offer finally came in.
Considering the economy now, I started thinking about what life would have been like for me if I had moved back to NWA in this economy. So, I planned a little experiment.
For the past several weeks, I have monitored every job board, newspaper and posting page I could find. The results perhaps speak more to the condition of NWA, than to the country as a whole. However, one can’t pooh-pooh the condition that the current market has vested on jobs in NWA.
When I was looking for a job in 2006, I turned to my trusty morning newspaper. In those days there were more than 250 jobs on a daily basis, and 20 or 30 of them were in the professional category, jobs that typically require a college degree but that aren’t specialized, such as medical or legal. In recent weeks, employment ads have decreased from 200 to 150 to now about 100.
Recently there have been fewer than 10 professional listings and most of them were in sales, with pay based on commission. This is an alarming trend. More and more companies are going towards this model. I fear that the best salesperson in the world would have trouble in an economy like this when people can barely afford to fill up their fuel tanks.
This has to be very discouraging to recent college grads or those who want to change careers.
Next, I spent some time looking at my old favorites: Monster, Hot Jobs and Jobster. The findings on these sites were a bit more optimistic for one job category: medical. (Note to all you undecided majors, become a registered nurse). Other than medical jobs, there were openings for insurance sales — based on commission.
Searching these Web sites is a chore in itself. Most are flooded with spam job listings. You’ll recognize them. Jobs that promise you hundreds of dollars to shop online, secret shop and work from home.
Then I moved my search to the local Chamber of Commerce Web sites. I didn’t find much there either. There were job listings for Wal-Mart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt. Many people have experienced the same pain that I have from these three companies. First, you spend six hours loading your resume into their online human resources site. Then you apply for a job and receive an application number. Then … wait … and wait … and nothing happens. Sometimes you get a rejection notice, but most times, you hear nothing at all.
Why is this? In the case of Wal-Mart, and more importantly the Wal-Mart vendor jobs, the jobs aren’t for local folks. For those who don’t know, Wal-Mart vendor jobs aren’t actually Wal-Mart jobs, but jobs with companies that supply the goods to the Bentonville-based retail giant.
Essentially to get a vendor job, you either have to have worked for Wal-Mart (good luck with that), or you don’t live in Northwest Arkansas. Check out the listings. Most offer healthy relocation packages to Bentonville.
Now, here is the real question: With all of the talent we have coming out of the University of Arkansas, why is the push to relocate people from out of state? God forbid that any of those vendors downsize. Then we’d have to compete against those people for those nonexistent professional jobs.
Aside from Wal-Mart corporate jobs and those coveted vendor jobs, what about the salaries in NWA that most of us are pulling in?
What I discovered by looking on salary.com and other salary reporting sites was really troubling. Essentially, if you don’t consider the vendor jobs and Wal-Mart corporate, most jobs in Northwest Arkansas pay about 20 percent to 25 percent less than other comparable markets.
One company even addressed this on their Web site by talking about the extremely low cost of living in Washington and Benton counties. However, that is not quite true. Rent and housing prices are high in this part of the state, even when compared with national averages. You may get less space in a big city, but the entry level rent is high in NWA. Grocery prices are high here, too, and so is the cost of dining out. Basic goods cost more here than they do in some big cities.
Gasoline prices in NWA are often 10 cents to 20 cents a gallon higher than the bordering states of Oklahoma and Missouri. When you look online at the prices of eggs, milk and other staples, prices in NWA are higher here than they are in the bordering states. Why?
Maybe it’s because we know what a jewel we have here in Northwest Arkansas. The problem is that so does everyone else. There are fewer and fewer jobs and there is a constant supply of job applicants from two distinct groups, the UA grads who want to stay in NWA and relive their college years, and the relocated executives and vendors who, once here, want to change jobs. The first group can be hired for much less than many 30-somethings in the area. The second group has more experience and national exposure and companies want this knowledge. Either way, what can those of us in the middle do to scramble for the jobs?
I visited the University of Arkansas career center Web page and found the following delightful material:
“People who keep looking for jobs eventually get jobs. Keep the following in mind:
It is easy to get discouraged when looking for a job, especially when meeting with rejection. Everyone gets rejected at one time or another. Don’t take rejection personally. Move on and keep looking.
Even in a sinking economy, there are always jobs. New positions are created constantly.
It is never too late to get experience. Even after graduating, it is possible to get internships and do volunteer work.
Tip: Consider contacting employers in which you are interested and ask them if they have any openings.”
Nice, but it doesn’t really address the feeling that if more experiencing these pangs, doesn’t it indicate that perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with job growth in the area?
And, of course the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s biggest employer, is infamous for its low-paying jobs. For instance, a recent posting for transit driver: $7 an hour, negotiable to $9 an hour. In other words, if they can’t find anyone who’ll settle for the low end, you might be able to talk them into a little more money.
Or, how about putting your bachelor’s degree to use as an administrative assistant at the UA for a little more than $22,000 a year? If you don’t have that college degree that you’re probably still paying dearly for, you might qualify for that position if you have some college and four years experience.
So what can you do to get a job that will support this glorious NWA lifestyle? Here are some of my tips:
Network. It is so important. You never know who you will meet in a local networking group. There are some fantastic options in Fayetteville. One met the Courtyard Marriott every Friday morning. Another meets downtown. There are tons of networking groups in Rogers. Just getting out there can garner you the kind of exposure that you want.
Market Yourself. Think of yourself, your skills, your behaviors and your ethics as a product. How can you put yourself in the best possible light to make others want to “buy” you? Remember to market to your audience. That includes dressing correctly for the type of job you want. Don’t overdo it and don’t slum it. You have to be very savvy against your competitors.
Make Friends With HR. Many big companies have recruiting departments within their internal HR. These may not be the people that hire, however, they are the people who conduct that initial phone interview to make sure that you are a good fit. They can sometimes put an end to your communication with a company after just a few seconds, therefore, lay it on like ice cream. These people should become your internal support.
Take A Job. I am sering. Take anything you can. Even if it’s a part-time job in the mall. The truth is, employers want to hire the employed. It is a weird cycle because you want employment and yet you typically need to be employed to get employment. Many people (including myself, circa 2006) have fears about this. I had these feelings of not wanting to take a job and then leave it. But believe me, companies that pay $8 an hour know that you will leave the moment something else comes up. It goes with the territory. They know this. Many people fear having a blip in their resume, but the truth is, if you work just three or four months at a piddley job, leave it out. You own your resume. Remember that.
Always Be On The Lookout. In this volatile market you might not even want to consider switching jobs. But be smart. If you have been with an employer for a while and you are ready to move on, you are much more attractive to recruiters than a newbie. Keep your eyes open. I eat at the same place almost every Wednesday and I’ve notthat a pharmaceutical company does interviews there quite often. I never saw these jobs in the classifieds, but when I go to the company’s Web site, bam, there it is — a decent job opening. I would never have known about this without being observant. Keep your eyes open at Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and the Pinnacle Market. These places are like interview central.
The economy is rough right now and I don’t think that it is going to bounce back anytime soon. Even with the new president, it’s going to take a while to fix the problems. But, nevertheless, you should truly assess what you want.
Northwest Arkansas may be the place you want to be, but it may not be the best fit for you. Times are tough. NWA may be like your ex who broke up with you, but you never figured out why. It might be something that you love, but the feelings may not be reciprocated. Maybe the NWA economy is “just not that into” you anymore!