05/06/2011 07:00 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2011

Jobs Increase In April, But The Employment Picture Isn't All Bright: A Look At Job Growth And Unemployment On The Local Level

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If you're among the millions of Americans who don't have a job and want one, you may have drawn some encouragement from a government report that came out this morning. According to the numbers-crunchers at the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US economy added 244,000 jobs last month, making it three straight months in which the national payroll has increased by a monthly average of more than 200,000 positions.

If you took a closer look, though, you might not have felt quite so encouraged. Jobs in some of the key higher-wage industries -– the kind that an economy needs to go from recovering to recovered –- are still lagging behind low-wage work. Nearly a quarter of the new jobs were in the retail sector, where the average hourly rate as of last year was $9.03, only a dollar and change above the current minimum wage.

A very small and thoroughly unscientific sampling of job-related stories in towns and neighborhoods around the country seemed to confirm that things on the job-creation front are pretty ambiguous -- not quite as bleak as they've been at times in the recent past, and not quite as bright as the overall job-growth numbers might lead you to expect.

In Patchogue, N.Y., Anthony Hubert, a manager of the Roast Coffee and Tea Trading Company, said that the café was looking to hire baristas and had been getting lots of applications.

Good news, right? Sure, but it came with a caveat. "Usually applicants are overqualified," he said. "We're looking for someone who has experience in cafés, but need someone younger without a college degree."

The problem with college degrees, he said, is that people who have them tend to hang up their aprons when better-paying jobs come calling. Not that the no-grad guideline is written into the company rulebook. The café recently hired a graduate of St. John's University, Nicole Westfall. She's making nine dollars an hour, exactly three cents below the 2010 retail-sector average. "You send resumés all over," she said, "but every employer wants experience that isn’t there."

On the opposite side of the country, in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., about 200 people filed into a McDonald's recently for what the company billed as its "National Hiring Day." Maybe an eighth of them would walk away with jobs; the restaurant said it was looking to hire 25 workers.

Jairo Moran, a store manager, said he met a lot of applicants who'd been unemployed since the start of the recession. "At this point, they really had to find a job,” he said.

One of the applicants was Ken Bishop, a 30-year-old resident of Long Beach who said he'd already filled out paperwork in four other restaurants by the time he got to the McDonald's. He planned to apply to three more jobs by the end of the day.

Since losing his job as a greeter at Verizon Wireless in early March, Bishop, had filled out 30 to 40 applications. It had been "tough," he said, but he remained hopeful.

Dressed in a suit and tie, he sounded a note of defiant optimism: “My long-term goal is to apply for a position, move up, go back to school and get into human resources. Anything you can use as a starting point to move from point A to B to C to D. Everyone has to start somewhere.”

In Morristown, N.J., Melissa Rivardo, a 42-year-old resident, put an even more positive spin on a recent bout of unemployment. After losing a restaurant job in 2008 -- a job she'd held for ten years -- she looked for a new job in the restaurant industry, she said. But the few owners who were hiring then didn't give her a chance -- it was clear, she said, they wanted someone younger.

So she enrolled in a course for massage therapy, her passion.

It paid off. She ended up getting a waiter job after all and now works two jobs -- massage therapy and waiting tables. When her old restaurant closed, she said, "I felt some anxiety but then I also felt a sense of freedom to pursue what I had been thinking about for a long time."

Sal Canzonieri, a 51-year-old resident of Whippany, N.J., told a similar story. In 2008 he lost his job as a technical writer to Alcatel-Lucent, a company that makes telecom equipment. He'd been working there for 25 years when the company outsourced operations to China.

But if China took away his old job, it supplied him with a new one, too, in a way. With the threat of bankruptcy and foreclosure looming, Canzonieri thought about how much he'd enjoyed teaching Qigong and Kung Fu to coworkers as part of the company's employee wellness program. He decided to open his own business; what did he have to lose? He now teaches the Chinese martial arts in ten locations.


Check out these other bleak/bright job-related dispatches from the Patch network:

In Alpharetta, Ga., investments in city infrastructure attract high-tech jobs. (Bright.)

In Port Washington, N.Y., a "war for talent." (Bright.)

In Red Bank, N.J., a job recruiter advises "Fall in love with the word 'no.'" (Bleak.)

In Ridgefield, Conn., the Chamber of Commerce reports an increase in "small opportunities." (Partly sunny?)