With part gumption and part perseverance, Jennifer Olivo has been able to get her designer-and-apparel business off the ground in a nondescript office park in Cotati.
Now if only she could find some more workers, Olivo may have a shot at becoming the next Stella McCartney or Vera Wang.
At her Jennifer Loel Designs, Olivo juggles the demands of 30 clients who are seeking help on design or manufacturing at the same time she tries to develop her own clothing designs. On a mannequin, her design for a bikini top rests, a reminder of why she got into the business: a childhood passion that sprung from a fascination with ballet costumes.
Demand is there, and she is at the point of turning down work. Her firm has three industrial sewers and could use three more to fill these skilled jobs, which pay from $12 to $18 per hour, depending on the mastery of machines that have such names as coverstitch, 4 thread/3 thread serge, chainstitch and leather walking foot.
“You can’t call a temp agency and get someone to fill in,” Olivo said. “You just can’t put a job ad out on Craigslist and find someone to do pattern making. It’s so hard.”
Olivo’s problem is one that many other Sonoma County businesses are facing in an era of low unemployment, especially in certain high-demand occupations such as industrial sewing, hybrid-engine car mechanics and carpenters.
The county’s jobless rate dropped to 3.8 percent in September, its lowest level in eight years, as the strong Bay Area economy fuels hiring across the region. Nearby areas also recorded low unemployment, reaching 3.6 percent in Napa County and 4.6 percent in Mendocino County.
The challenge for businesses is how to recruit and retain employees in an era of essentially full employment, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Market favors workers
“It’s down to the creativity of each entrepreneur, business owner and manager,” Stone said. “You have to trim your sails or adjust your course.”
For some businesses, he said, that may mean actions like raising prices, cutting customers or scaling back work in an attempt to navigate growth.
For workers, it’s a buyer’s market. With skilled labor in short supply, it is a good time for workers to explore new opportunities, whether it is climbing the management ranks at their current firm or jumping to another employer. It is also an optimal time to pick up new skills that can make a job candidate more attractive to a hiring manager.
“It’s an employee market right now,” Stone said.
But there’s a limit to the hiring boom, which has created nearly 36,000 jobs in Sonoma County since local economy hit bottom in early 2010. Some people just don’t have the skill set even for entry-level jobs, whether its math or writing proficiency or how to properly interview for a job, said Jessica Taylor, manager for Job Link, the one-stop job and career center operated by the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board.
“In many cases, their skills are out of date,” Taylor said. “The obstacles they are facing are not that simple as just go take an Excel class.”