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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.”

The issue is especially pressing for those working at or near the minimum wage, which is scheduled to go to $10 an hour statewide on Jan. 1. Many of those workers are in the service sector, which is the backbone of a Sonoma County economy that still relies heavily on tourism.

The occupations with the most projected job growth from 2012 to 2022 in Santa Rosa are all in the service sector, according to a forecast by the state Employment Development Department. The top four categories all pay below a $15 hourly “living wage” that labor advocates are proposing. The list includes retail sales at a median of $11.74 an hour, waiters and waitresses at $9.10 an hour, cashiers at $11.49 an hour and fast-food workers at $9.36 an hour.

Training available

“If you want to make more money you have to be a manager,” Taylor said of the service industry.

But low pay is not limited to the service sector. For example, home health-care workers, who earn $11.65 an hour and have not had a raise in about three years, are pushing Sonoma County for an increase in pay.

There are options for workers. Job Link provides training services and counseling for workers or those looking to join the workforce.

But given the current job environment, some employers have taken the initiative to create their own specialized training programs to develop skilled workers. That’s especially the case in certain sectors where there are no comparable vocational classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, which has highly regarded courses in such areas as the culinary arts and the wine industry.

For instance, Ed Rueda, owner of Hybrid Haven in Petaluma, has worked with the Economic Development Board to create a specialized program where auto mechanics can learn how to work on hybrid engines.

“There’s a huge crunch,” Rueda said. His business has three technicians who can repair or replace hybrid engines, including himself, but Rueda said he could use two more.

He notes the benefits for the community: Mechanics can increase their wages with expertise in hybrid engines, independent shops can grow their business by offering a new service, and customers can save money on a replacement battery with more competition.

Another industry that is experiencing a labor shortage is the construction sector, which pays an median hourly wage of $30.52 in the area. It is climbing back from the depths of the real estate crash, which wiped out nearly half of the 15,000 jobs in the construction sector, said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange.

The demand is especially urgent in the aftermath of the Valley fire in Lake County, which destroyed almost 2,000 structures, including 1,280 homes.

“If everyone rebuilds . . . that will be the biggest residential project in the North Bay,” Woods said.

The Economic Development Board also is assisting with training for the county’s burgeoning industrial sewing businesses, which is creating a niche on the West Coast. More designers are looking to bring back work from overseas, whether because of quality control issues, a quick turnround for a small order placements, or a “buy American” business ethos that they can market on retail shelves.

“Consumers may be willing to pay a higher price to know that it’s made here,” Olivo said.

In addition to Olivo’s design firm, there is also Bijan’s Protective Equipment in Santa Rosa, which specializes in military products such as face masks and duffel bags, and Kitsbow in Petaluma, which focuses on activewear.

Those who have proficiency with a home sewing machine would be perfect candidates for hiring, Olivo said. She mostly recruits through word of mouth and was able to land Maria Delgado to work for her, who in turn recruited two other family members.

Job isn’t just sewing

These aren’t jobs where workers are consigned to sitting at a machine all day doing one pattern. One client has 40 new styles that have to be done in a month, and workers help problem-solve in the designs. One client wants to make clothes for those who use colostomy bags, while another designer submitted a cap that would have ice packs attached to it. She has a “fun Friday” where workers can design whatever they want to help fuel their creativity.

“I don’t want someone coming in here sewing the same pattern,” Olivo said. “I want them to learn.”

Delgado, a 20-year veteran of the industry, assists in pattern making. “She probably wants to pull my hair out some of the time,” Olivo jokingly said of Delgado.

The ultimate goal is to have enough business and workers to sustain her firm — which Olivo named after her middle name, Loel, a combination of her grandmothers’ names, both of whom liked to sew. That would allow her to spend more time on her own designs.

“That’s kind of the dream,” she said.

“I still have to be creative . . . but I kind of have to do my own stuff on the side.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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