Thursday, February 15, 2007

Help Wanted

A look at good jobs and bad jobs in Memphis.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Stories about jobs and the economy are easy to skip, even when they run on the front page of the paper, as happened Tuesday in The Commercial Appeal. They're abstract, and the big numbers are hard to grasp -- "the state will generate an estimated 31,900 new jobs, a gain of about 1.2 percent compared with 2006's 1.3 percent gain."

I know the story is important, but it lost me. Jobs are personal. If you don't have one, you're probably job-obsessed. If you don't like the one you have, then you are probably looking for a better one, and the numbers don't begin to tell the story.

David Ciscel teaches a course at the University of Memphis called "Good Jobs and Bad Jobs in Memphis." He invited me to talk to his class this week. Several years ago, I interviewed him for a story I wrote about warehouse work, so I think that's why he called. Or maybe he knows something about the business of print journalism these days. Anyway, to get ready, I spent Sunday morning reading the "Help Wanted" ads in the paper.

I found jobs that pay $7 an hour, jobs that pay $100,000 a year, jobs that pay an unspecified amount, jobs in music, jobs with catchy come-ons, jobs with brutally honest descriptions, jobs that I could see myself doing, and jobs that I couldn't imagine doing.

"So you've always wanted to drive a tour bus," said one ad. "Here's your chance." Actually I haven't, and it sounds awfully stressful. But Coach USA of Memphis has several positions available with "good first-year earning potential."

Continuing the tourism theme, Graceland is looking for a "merchandise supervisor" to oversee gift shops and the people who work in them. The job requires "handling employee issues and resolving employee and guest complaints" as well as the ability to "work under pressure while maintaining confidentiality." It sounds challenging and interesting. Weekends and holidays required. The pay is not mentioned.

At the bottom of the tourism-and-entertainment pyramid are the jobs as housekeepers at the Tunica casinos. One job, which is temporary, requires working three different shifts including overnights and pays $7 an hour.

Card dealers at the casinos are also in demand. Applicants have to be accepted to dealer school for seven weeks of unpaid training, five days a week, four hours a day. The school is free, but the ad doesn't say how much dealers can expect to earn.

Honey-Baked Ham is looking for telemarketers. The pay is $8 to $10 an hour. I had no idea they use telemarketers, and although I get lots of telemarketing calls around dinnertime when I'm looking for something to eat, I have never gotten one from Honey-Baked Ham, which seems odd.

Telemarketing jobs are always available, and filling them must be a challenge given the number of cranky people like me on the other end of the line. A Verizon ad requires "a high degree of scheduling availability," which sound like nights and weekends, at $10 an hour. A clever ad for a "credit reporter" says it requires a college degree and involves "heavy phone work" but in a "fun business-casual atmosphere." It pays $10 to $11 an hour. Other call-center ads specify that only inbound calls are involved, which I take to mean complaints.

If telemarketing can be "fun," then it should not be surprising that an ad for a janitor at $9.50 an hour describes the position as "floor technician." Or that an ad for a receptionist/sales rep at Massage Envy emphasizes the "professional atmosphere."

The earnings potential of some jobs seems surprisingly high -- "lawn care, earn $40,000 to $50,000 or more" -- while the quoted salary for other jobs seems low -- "construction project manager" and coordinator of State Building Commission projects for the University of Memphis, at $28,244 to $40,290. And we wonder why the FedExForum parking garage ran into problems. An apartment complex is looking for a maintenance person able to do plumbing and electrical work and fix appliances for $15 an hour. What homeowner in need wouldn't happily pay three times that?

As America's Distribution Center, Memphis has lots of jobs involving trucks and warehouse work. There are four full columns of driver ads, with many promising "$50,000 annually" plus a signing bonus. FedEx Ground needs package handlers at $9.50 an hour, but there is the promise of raises and benefits after 90 days. For what it's worth, that's 50 cents more than the job paid when I did my little stint as a warehouse worker eight years ago. Another company needs a "truck washer" for $1,600 a month. And Exel Supply Chain Management needs a forklift driver at $9.75 an hour.

The prize for full disclosure goes to Sherwin-Williams, which needs "production operators" able to do "constant, repetitive lifting, turning and twisting of 50 pound loads," plus stair-climbing, frequent 75-pound loads, standing for long periods, and donning protective equipment. Pay is not mentioned, and the job is only for six months. Don't say you weren't warned.

Crime being what it is, security guards are in demand, but the job doesn't pay much. Christian Brothers University is looking for them at $9 an hour, Murray Guard Inc. pays $7 to $9 an hour, and Imperial Security is looking for 50 guards at $500 to $700 a week plus overtime and 10 patrol drivers at $35,00 to $40,000 a year. For security of a different kind, the University of Memphis is seeking residence-hall coordinators, starting at $25,543 plus an apartment with utilities.

There are jobs out there for barbers and for bass guitarists who can play gospel music on Sundays. Pay not disclosed. Christian Brothers High School needs a chemistry teacher, preferably with a master's degree, for an unspecified salary. Waffle House is looking for managers at $30,000 to $35,000 a year.

There are nearly two full pages of job listings in the medical field. There is an ad for a nurse practitioner that pays $100,000. Registered nurses can make over $50,000. With typical naivete, I sang the praises of a nursing career to my wife, who used to be a nurse. She reminded me that the hours can be brutal, along with other factors.

"Human excrement," she said. "Lots of it."

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