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PhillyDeals: Millions of U.S. jobs vacant, but millions more Americans out of work

The U.S. Labor Department says 3.4 million American jobs were vacant in September, the most since before the recession started three years ago.

The U.S. Labor Department says 3.4 million American jobs were vacant in September, the most since before the recession started three years ago.

Meanwhile, there are still more than 15 million Americans out of work.

Who's hiring? Why can't they find the people they need?

Emerging technology firms say jobs are going begging (see, for example, the 600-plus tech and sales jobs posted at West Conshohocken-based First Round Capital's website). At the other end of the scale, Labor reports U.S. lumber companies, seafood processors, farmers, landscapers, and country clubs applied for permits to hire tens of thousands of foreign workers this year, at above-market wages - because they can't find Americans for low-skilled jobs.

What's keeping vacant jobs and unemployed Americans apart? I asked Professor Paul Harrington, of Drexel University's new Center for Labor Markets and Policy research center.

The job positions listed by tech companies - when they are for real and not just fishing to test the market - mostly call for "highly specialized training and skills," Harrington noted.

Employers used to provide more of that training; workers in factories and financial institutions expected to learn ever-more-esoteric information that bound them and their companies and careers for life.

But the financial speedup that fueled the mergers, consolidations, and outsourcing of the last 30 years "changed the system radically," Harrington told me. Mass layoffs eroded loyalty. Bosses saw less reason to train people likely to leave. Now it's train yourself.

Also, more bosses have gotten out of the habit of hiring young, entry-level U.S. workers.

"In the last 10 years, the teen and young-adult job market has been crushed" by the willingness of bosses to use reliable, desperate immigrants, Harrington told me, citing a recent article he wrote for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, in stores and offices, "older workers are pushing kids out" of service jobs.

Stricter labor policy won't likely change this soon: "Labor markets are social institutions," Harrington said. "Once they find a hiring source, they stay with it."


Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., of Pasadena, Calif., said last week that it bought the Philadelphia-based architectual- engineering firm KlingStubbins Inc., which employs 500 at offices in five U.S. cities and Beijing.

Publicly traded Jacobs already has offices in Philadelphia and the Conshohocken area. Does that mean job cuts? "We buy companies to add and grow them, not to downsize them," Jacobs executive vice president John Prosser told me.

Jacobs won't say how much it paid KlingStubbins' senior managers and other owners. Prosser told me the price was "not material," given Jacobs' size. Jacobs' sales total about $10 billion a year and have risen in recent quarters, after falling in 2010.

Philadelphia-based KlingStubbins executives, including design director Bradford White Fiske and national managing principal Michael R. Lorenz, did not return calls. Prosser said his firm expected the bosses at KlingStubbins would be "a very integral part of Jacobs."

KlingStubbins was Jacobs' fourth acquisition in a year, including two businesses from the Europe-based Aker group, which operates a state-subsidized shipyard in South Philadelphia.

Why all the mergers? "Construction favors size. Clients want to deal with large firms with lots of resources," said David Richter, president and chief operations officer at serial acquirer Hill International Inc. in Moorestown.

"There's been an increase in distressed-firm sales - I don't know that's what happened [to KlingStubbins] - but partnerships, when they hit a wall, would rather sell," Richter said, than have to make big cuts.

KlingStubbins traces its roots to firms founded in the 1940s by Vincent Kling, whose projects included Lankenau Hospital and Bell Laboratories, and by Cambridge, Mass.-based Hugh Stubbins, whose buildings included New York's austere Citicorp Center and Japan's Landmark Tower in Yokohama.