Hiring was strong all summer. Almost one of every two people in metro Memphis drew a paycheck by August. Yet thousands are under-employed or unemployed, asking ‘how do I get in the door?’

Some wore suits.

Some wore T-shirts.

They all came with the same question.

How do I get a job?

You hear that asked often in Memphis, Joseph “C.J.” Harris said.

Even after what just happened, you hear it often.

Memphis job market

Hiring was strong all summer.

Almost one of every two people living in the region drew a paycheck by August.

Employers added 4,500 new positions from May into August, when 655,500 payroll jobs were counted in metropolitan Memphis.

Historic? In a way.

This was the most jobs ever measured here in any August in any year.

Still, there was that question.

Part-time jobs

How do I get in the door?

Some 71,200 new full- and part-time jobs have emerged in metropolitan Memphis since January 2011, when employment fell to the low point for a region then still mired in recession.

Today, employers contend they can’t grow more quickly. They’ve run out of skilled workers.

Yet thousands of people are under-employed or unemployed and looking in. August’s unemployment rate inched up to 4.4 percent for the Memphis area after nearly 14,000 jobless people outside the labor force came off the sidelines, started looking for work.

It was a sign people had heard the times are good. Thousands of others hoped for a better job at better pay.

Which led Harris to run a recent job fair he said was headlined by a simple question:

“Why can’t I get a job?’’

Seedco Memphis

“A lot of firms are looking for individuals with basic skills, maybe six months to a year of experience on a job. We’re connecting those places with the population we’re servicing,” said Harris, a Memphis manager for Seedco, a New York-based anti-poverty nonprofit.

As most everyone who lives here knows, metro Memphis is a region of contrasts.

Within the Memphis city limits live about 507,000 men and women 16 and older. The U.S. census shows just over one of every two hold jobs.

This sounds good. In a city where a quarter of the men, women and children are considered impoverished, half the working-age population works.

But look outside the big city to the suburbs, where a rising share of the region’s middle-class families live, white and black.

Retailers are following the middle class. Noting the wave of retail space built in the last year, market analyst Marcus & Millichap counted 303,000 square feet of additional space, an amount equal to a large shopping mall, though this was spread among smaller stores chiefly in the suburbs.

“People are moving basically to make a future for themselves,” University of Memphis economist John Gnuschke said.

Just the other day, a U.S. census tract analysis by Harvard University and Brown University researchers was released, Gnuschke said.

Named the Opportunity Atlas, it suggests the neighborhood where a person grows up tends to show how well off they will be in adult life.

“Moving out of poor neighborhoods is an important trend,” he said. “It’s happening in Memphis.”


Southaven, for example, since 2000 has almost doubled in population to 54,000 residents, including 39,000 age 16 and older. Two of three hold jobs.

Southaven is the largest city in DeSoto County, where an estimated 45,000 residents commute daily from DeSoto to jobs located primarily in Memphis and Shelby County.

Seedco is less intent on steering these commuters or well-paid Memphians into better jobs. It’s aimed at aiding those on the margins, including people shuttled between temp agencies.

Hundreds of firms rely on agencies to comb through the labor force. Firms need a steady supply of suitable applicants. Thousands of people jump from temp job to temp job, lured by an extra $1 an hour or a shorter commute.

Temp agencies

Constant turnover has tended to lead many employers to rely on agencies to manage constant hiring. At the same time, expectations have been blunted for many people in the temp ranks.

Instead of viewing temp work as an entry point to a career, many people question whether they’ll ever do more than what they do now, said Tara Colton, Seedco executive director in New York.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who have lost the vision for being able to ever retire from a job,” Colton said, “or they’ve lost the enthusiasm of staying at the job and rising in the ranks.”

Part-time jobs

Just how many temp workers are employed in metro Memphis isn’t clear. Nor is it certain how many people work two or more jobs.

About 613,100 metro Memphis residents were employed in August, according to the regular household survey by government labor market analysts. A separate government survey of employers found 655,500 payroll jobs.

While these surveys are not meant as comparisons, the difference between the two figures suggests the number of people working two or more jobs.

In metro Memphis, this difference totals 42,400, compared with 28,000 in Louisville, Kentucky; 16,000 in Birmingham, Alabama; 9,000 in New Orleans; and 2,000 in Nashville.

Paragon Bank

Right now, Greater Memphis is rolling.

Paragon Bank this summer launched the Greater Memphis Area Consumer Sentiment Survey.

After contacting a sample of residents in the metro area’s two most populous counties (930,000 people live in Shelby, 175,000 in DeSoto), the Memphis bank recently released the results.

Nearly four in 10 respondents considered themselves better off than last year, half said they were the same, and one in 10 said they were worse off.

While the homes surveyed tended to be in the suburbs (34 percent of the respondents lived within the Memphis city limits), the survey captured the time’s buoyancy — about 9 of every 10 were at least feeling OK.

When it came to job searches, 47 percent agreed jobs can be found but it takes some searching; 20 percent thought jobs easy to find.

“I think it’s a pretty positive reading,” said Robert Shaw Jr., Paragon chief executive officer. “It’s been hard to get back all those jobs we lost in the recession, but this is the strongest I’ve seen it in a long time.”

Amazon $15

“Even with companies like Amazon raising pay to $15 an hour, these are still entry-level jobs that a lot of people aren’t prepared for,” said U of M’s Gnuschke, head of the school’s Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which Paragon contracted to perform the consumer survey.

Because poor neighborhoods abound in Memphis, he said, more than $15 jobs are needed to open a sound future for the city’s children.

“We’ve not been able to address the lack of our ability to solve the problems of skills and education,’’ Gnuschke said.

“Every city sees these same problems. They are not solved in one business cycle.”

‘Why can’t I find a job?’

C.J. Harris, though, is trying.

Last year, Seedco job fairs connected 892 people with 400 employers.

This year’s “Why Can’t I Find a Job” event drew dozens of people to Seedco’s office in Clark Tower. The answers rolled out:

Dress well. Arrive on time. Bring more than one resume. Write a special resume for each employer. Stay put for a year or two. Hiring managers fear job jumpers also will leave them quickly.

Employing ex-felons

Seedco also has done something else.

It’s reaching out to the region’s ex-felon population, looking for ways to bring people into the workforce and ease concerns of potential employers.

Four grants will enable service to 740 individuals primarily in Memphis and West Memphis.

“Re-entry has become a major focus for us,” Colton said. “The need in Memphis, and the fact we’re going into West Memphis, is really staggering.”

Ted Evanoff, business columnist of The Commercial Appeal, can be reached at evanoff@commercialappeal.com and (901) 529-2292.