Workers Weary Of Economy

Two years after Ray Victoria lost his place in the old economy, he's nearly finished rebuilding his career to ride out the uncertainties of the new one.

When factories around Bellingham, Wash., started shedding workers a few years ago, Victoria and scores of others sought retraining. This spring, the former mechanic at a Boeing Co. aircraft plant will graduate from Bellingham Technical College as a much-in-demand heating and air conditioning technician.

But he'll enter an economy that continues to deliver limited returns. Victoria expects to earn only about 60 percent of what he did at Boeing. And while administrators at the college say new admissions are beginning to trail off, retraining enrollment remains roughly triple what it was three years ago.

The uncertain fortunes of the school and its students offer a window into the economy as 2004 nears an end. It was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times.

After the late 1990s boom and the steep drop-off that followed, the business climate is warming in a way that has been slow to reach many people. Some economists describe it as a transition year, but it's unclear what the next stage will be.

Many workers remain skeptical. Many businesses remain cautious, especially on whether to expand their payrolls. While homeowners are enjoying surging valuations, the prospects of higher interest rates could temper the housing boom.

Factors ranging from record gasoline prices to the continued war in Iraq to rising national debt are exerting strong pulls on the economy. "We're not really sure where all that's headed," said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. "This is the new normal."

By many broad measures, the business climate during the past year has improved. In the quarter ended in September, the economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.9 percent.

Consumers are spending, maybe not lavishly, but steadily. Corporations are reporting strong profits and are expanding. A weak dollar is giving U.S. manufacturers a boost, making their products cheaper for overseas buyers. The stock market has delivered limited gains to investors.

With worries about terrorist attacks diminishing and corporate scandals fading, decision-makers and investors have regained some confidence. "We transitioned from crisis to crisis to a more normal economic environment," said Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa.

The upturn has created new opportunities, evident at the technical college in Bellingham, two hours north of Seattle.

Workers flocked to the school starting in 2001 when Georgia-Pacific Corp. shuttered a local pulp mill. Layoffs at Alcoa Inc.'s aluminum smelting plant sent even more workers to the school. Now many of those students are moving on to jobs that pay well, if not as much as many of them were earning before. Employers come to the school to recruit from Victoria's class, their demand for new workers fueled by a continued construction boom.

The drawback, Victoria says, is that most of those jobs pay $14 to $16 an hour, compared to $25 an hour he made at Boeing. "There are a lot of job opportunities out there," he says. "The only part that is kind of unfortunate now is that I have to start back over."

For the vast majority of people with jobs, the gradual recovery means only limited improvements in pay and other job opportunities, the measures most people use to calibrate their personal economic circumstances.

The nation's unemployment rate - which peaked at 6.3 percent in June of last year - has gradually ticked down to 5.4 percent. Employers have added to payrolls intermittently. Through November, the economy had regained roughly 2.3 million of the 2.7 million jobs lost during the recession.

Meanwhile, average pay has edged up, from $15.45 an hour at the end of last year to $15.83 in November - an increase of less than 2.5 percent. That is behind inflation, and much of the small gains in pay are eaten up by surging gasoline prices and the steeply higher health care costs shouldered by most workers.

"When you get down to the microeconomic picture, I think things have not been as good as they could have been, the best example being the job market," said Sung Won Sohn, an economist with Wells Fargo & Co.

More than three years after the economy started to expand again, the pace of improvement may only pick up slightly in 2005. Pay increases will probably begin to accelerate by next spring, according to a forecast by business publisher BNA Inc. But the larger increases and a corresponding pickup in hiring will be modest, said economist Joel Popkin, who authors the forecast.

Even as the economy improves, the job market appears fundamentally changed to some workers. So many have decided their best chances lie in retooling.

That's what David Boyd of Chattanooga, Tenn., did. When the Wheland Automotive Industries foundry closed in 2002 - eliminating his and 1,300 other jobs - he spent months unable to find work.

So the maintenance mechanic went back to school, re-emerging as a licensed practical nurse. He roughly matches the $15 an hour he earned at Wheland, working at a hospital. But with so many of his former co-workers settling for low-paying service jobs, Boyd know he's an exception in the current economy.

"The Lord blessed me," he says. "You can't sit back and wait for something to come to you…Now you have to get out there and fight for yourself."