A look at the tricky Santa Cruz job hunt, and where job seekers might have the best luck
With mid-length brown hair, impeccable teeth and a warm smile, Amy Sheppard is an upbeat Santa Cruz resident who originally came to town for college and now calls it home. But, like approximately 14 million other Americans, Sheppard is unemployed and struggling to figure out what to do about it.
She looks for work every day.
Sheppard wants to use her psychology degree to work in the nonprofit sector with at-risk youth, but has not secured a paid position since graduating from UC Santa Cruz in March of 2007—almost four years ago.
In today’s brutal job market, it’s not enough to ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” One also has to be savvy about job-hunting by evaluating growing industries and job availability.
Sheppard understands this better than most people and has held several volunteer positions while hoping to land paid employment, but to no avail.
Santa Cruz career coach and consultant Doug Owen works with people like Sheppard to help them optimize their job search. He often suggests to people who volunteer that they use the connections they’ve forged through volunteering to find paid work.
While he admits that asking for help may be hard, Owen believes that starting conversations with as many people as possible who are likely to say “yes” to a meeting or simple cup of coffee will eventually lead to opportunities finally trickling through the funnel.
Local career coach Debbie Melnikoff agrees with Owen that networking is the real path to golden opportunities. She suggests clients use social networking tools like Linkedin and Twitter to augment their options. “It’s a different market,” she says, “and people need to package themselves dynamically.”
However, one of the problems facing Sheppard has nothing to do with her experience or approach, though it ultimately ends up in her losing out on job opportunities. Sheppard was born with cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.
“It’s not because of my disability that I can’t find work,” she adds. “But if you’re up against somebody who has the same experience it can be a hindrance.”
Sheppard isn’t shy, though; she is determined to find a job, and her confidence seems unwavering.
“The only way to overcome obstacles is to use your network—people who respect you and who you respect, and to be bold about asking for help. Most of us don’t do that very well,” says Owen, dubbing one’s professional and social network “the hidden job market.”
David Lundberg, director of the Santa Cruz County Workforce Investment Board, says that if people want to find work in Santa Cruz, they have to be aware of long-term job trends and what sectors are actually hiring.
“We know that there’s high unemployment in construction jobs,” he says, adding that the green job market, however, continues to slowly grow. “[For example], Ecology Action has been hiring because they’ve gotten grants from the state,” says Lundberg. “There are also slow developments as people are weatherizing their homes to reduce energy costs. Everything seems to be on a slow trend.”
He says that local companies that are hiring include Zero Motorcycles, Nordic Naturals and Driscoll’s. In addition to green employment opportunities growing, healthcare is an expanding field. And, according to Lundberg, as Baby Boomers move toward retirement age, jobs in all sectors will open up.
Although sluggish, he says the overall picture is more promising than it was one year ago.
Another trend Lundberg points to is Santa Cruz’s growing penchant for start-ups. “A lot of people are trying to start their own businesses,” he says. “People are innovating, and Americans have come out of past recessions by starting small businesses. They start small [but they grow].”
Indeed, more Santa Cruz residents report being self employed than previously—11.7 percent of the population in 2009, the highest rate in 10 years, according to the 2009 Community Assessment Project.
“We have lots of home-grown businesses,” Lundberg says, noting O’Neill, Plantronics and West Marine as some successful examples. “Santa Cruz is a niche for research and development, though the actual product-making may be done elsewhere.”
The nonprofit sector is also surviving the severe economy. Nonprofits continue to face funding struggles as we slowly move out of the recession, but Lundberg says they will stay afloat and remain viable employers. “As government funding for nonprofits is reduced, foundations step in and offer funds so nonprofits can make up for the loss,” he says.
While that is good news, according to Sheppard, “there are people who have been working in the nonprofit field for 20 years going back to school because they can’t find work.”
In addition to field experience, attaining higher levels of education is becoming imperative for job hunters. While waiting out the tough job market, Sheppard has tried twice to get into a graduate program at CSU San Jose without success. Impacted education programs are another challenge facing those dreaming of making themselves more appealing to potential employers.
Sheppard reminds herself regularly, “It’s not just me; many people are looking for work.” She relies on the support of her friends to stay positive about life and subsists on her meager SSI benefits—her optimism persisting all the while.
After all, the job market may be tough, but, in Lundberg’s words, “having a positive attitude always helps.”