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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK : PARADISE AT A PRICE : There is a price to pay for this paradise, which--with its high housing costs--is one of the most expensive areas in the nation to live.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mark Melzer graduated from the University of Michigan in 1980, he could not find work in the recession-racked Midwest. So while visiting his parents in Southern California, he dropped off a few resumes to Orange County architectural firms. Job offers came immediately. A decade later, Melzer is still here working for a Costa Mesa architectural firm designing commercial buildings and golf course clubhouses. And he figures that he will be working in the area for years to come. “The potential is still excellent because of the exceptional growth of the county, combined with the availability of investment capital,” he said. To Melzer and thousands of other transplants and natives, Orange County is a workers’ paradise whose vigorous and diversified economy offers opportunities galore--from real estate development and high technology to tourism and high finance.

This feeling is reflected in The Times Orange County Poll on workplace issues conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The random telephone survey of 600 workers found that the vast majority of the area’s employees are happy with their jobs, more so than workers nationwide.

Most like their jobs so much that, even if they won the lottery and became instant millionaires, they would continue punching a time clock. The Times Poll also found that Orange County is a great place to get ahead. A large majority of workers rate the area as good in providing career opportunities.

“The results reflect the fact that Orange County is a very good place to work,” said pollster Baldassare. “Most residents are very satisfied with their current jobs, much more so than is evident on national surveys. Most rate their job security, chance of promotion and benefits very favorably.”

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There is a price to pay for this paradise, which--with its high housing costs--is one of the most expensive areas in the nation to live. And the traffic congestion, pollution and increasing urbanization detract from the county’s attractiveness as a place to work.

Many workers express less than total satisfaction with their wages or salaries. Nearly half of all workers, particularly managers and professionals, must put in overtime to advance. The extra hours sometimes go uncompensated.

Stress is clearly a workplace problem, with more than a quarter of sales and clerical employees complaining of job-related pressures and illnesses. Others worry about physical accidents, toxic chemicals and computer-related health ailments.

One in 10 Orange County workers say they have faced discrimination on the job. The largest number of complaints concerned sexual discrimination or harassment, but others complained about bias because of race, age and sexual orientation.

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Drug testing of employees by companies is strongly supported by workers, as are restrictions on smoking. More than a fifth of the respondents said drug and alcohol abuse was a problem in their place of employment. Overall, the Times Poll paints the picture of highly motivated, ambitious workers, happy and secure in their jobs, anxious to advance and willing to labor long hours to grab the brass ring of Orange County-style success.

The survey found that 58% of Orange County workers are very satisfied with their work and 34% moderately satisfied. A similar survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 46% of U.S. employees were very satisfied with their jobs and 40% moderately satisfied.

“As another indication of worker satisfaction in Orange County, two in three say they would continue to work even if they had enough money to live as comfortably as they would like,” Baldassare said.

Academicians who study worker behavior say the strong job satisfaction expressed by the majority of Orange County workers is explained in large part by the special nature of the area’s business community. They point out that the county is highly entrepreneurial and employs an exceptionally youthful and well-educated work force in predominantly administrative, skilled technical and professional positions.

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Of the people who participated in the poll, 60% were in management and administration or professional jobs and another 16% were in technical or skilled work. Only 4% said they were in manual or assembly line work, which tends to be lower paid and more monotonous. About a third of the workers polled said they earned at least $40,000 a year and 16% said they earned $60,000 or more. Also, 69% were 44 years old or younger.

“In general, Orange County tends to have a more affluent population of white-collar workers,” said Jone Pearce, associate professor at the UC Irvine Graduate School of Management. “The more educated the worker, the more likely he or she is to be satisfied,”

Well-educated workers tend to be happier with their lot, said Pearce, whose area of study is organizational behavior, including worker attitudes. “They had a chance to make choices as they went along and their job is objectively better measured by pay and challenge.”

The high satisfaction level is no doubt tied to the perception that Orange County provides good opportunities for career advancement. The Times Poll found that 85% of all respondents considered the county a “good” to “excellent” place to work in terms of career opportunities.

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Blue-collar workers see less opportunity here than other segments of the work force. Only 36% of blue-collar workers rated the county as an “excellent” place to work, compared to 56% of management and professional workers.

This is not surprising, since the county has been increasingly moving from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one. The county has emerged as a financial and high-tech business center, while manufacturers of durable goods have been increasingly discouraged by the high cost of land and labor.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that between February, 1980, and February, 1990, the number of manufacturing jobs in the county increased 14.5% to a total of 257,800, while the number of service jobs--including such a diverse mix as retail sales, accounting, law and restaurant workers--has burgeoned by 83.7% to a total of 310,800.

Considering other aspects of their employment, the county’s workers were most satisfied--65% said so--with their perceived job security.

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However, Orange County workers may have a false sense of security, said Jim Rockett, president-elect of PIRA, the Assn. of Human Resource Professionals, which is the Southern California chapter of the national Society for Human Resource Management.

Rockett noted that in the current era of mergers, acquisitions and downsizing of companies seeking to compete better in international markets, many mid-level managerial positions are being eliminated nationally and, to a lesser extent, in Orange County.

“We get several letters of notification each month of companies that are having significant layoffs or closing altogether,” said Betty Nelson, manager for the state Employment Development Department office in Santa Ana. She said her office is working to place “a large group of unemployed professionals,” many of whom have impressive experience but are having difficulty finding jobs similar to what they previously held.

While job security ranked high on the satisfaction chart, workers expressed less satisfaction with their health insurance, wages, pensions, bonuses and profit-sharing plans. In addition, a majority said they would use health-club benefits, flextime or telecommunicating options and extended leaves of absence if made available. More than a third said they would use child-care and elder-care benefits if offered.

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Of the poll respondents, only 48% were “very satisfied” with their health insurance and 35% felt the same way about their retirement and pension plans. Nonetheless, 29% of employees in the poll said they believe that their entire benefits package has improved in the past few years, while 16% said they thought the package had gotten worse.

Only 40% of poll respondents said they were “very satisfied” with their wages, which some business experts believe reflects the frustration that workers feel in struggling to make extremely high mortgage payments.

Some respondents said they would prefer to live somewhere else where they could afford to buy roomier, less expensive houses and enjoy a more peaceful environment. They said they choose to work in Orange County because it is the best place to make money--fast.

Consider Jim Bickley, who is a director of marketing for Wesco Employee Benefits Group in Irvine. He is frustrated with the congestion on the county’s freeways, and a year ago he and his wife considered moving to Colorado. But they decided against it when they realized there wouldn’t be as much financial opportunity.

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“I would prefer a slower track, but I couldn’t make as much money,” he said.

Or take Jill Perry, 29, who has been selling expensive window shutters in Orange County for eight years. She said business improves each year. “It is unbelievable the amount of money that people make here and what they will spend on their homes,” Perry said.

She and her husband, a 36-year-old Orange County securities broker with his own investment firm, are working hard and trying to invest their earnings wisely with the hope of retiring in four years and returning East where they grew up.

“We are living here with the intent of moving out of here after we make money,” Perry said. She complains that developers are “stripping every hillside” near her Laguna Hills home and that the place is getting too crowded.

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The Perrys are typical of the area’s families, who work long hours in the fast lane but hope to retire young enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The survey revealed that 47% of the county’s employees work more than 40 hours a week. And 40% said their employers do not readily pay them for the overtime or offer time off for the extra work hours.

And there is little that is laid-back about them. Given the choice, 58% of the county’s workers who were polled said they would prefer to take the “fast track” with less flexible hours but more opportunity for promotion and only 34% would take the “slow track” with more flexible hours but less chance for advancement.

After giving it their all, however, 55% of those polled said they wanted to retire at age 55 or younger.

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Experts said that one of the most telling indicators of Orange County workers’ sense of well-being is that 87% of those polled said that at work they are allowed to make independent decisions. Those who say they are at liberty to think for themselves rather than take directions from supervisors included 92% in management and professional positions and 79% in clerical-sales and blue-collar jobs.

“It means that Orange County has a heavily participatory management style where workers are given autonomy,” Rockett said, adding that this freedom gives employees pride in their work, a sense of responsibility and ultimately makes for a happier work force.

“You work harder if you are happy in your work,” he observed. “Also, morale is definitely going to go up and stress down.”

The Times Orange County Poll on workplace issues was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. Using a random sample of listed and unlisted telephone numbers, 600 employed county residents were interviewed between March 22 and March 25 on weekday nights and weekends. An equal number of men and women 18 and older were interviewed. The margin of error for a sample of this size is plus or minus 4%. For subgroups in the sample, it would be larger. All respondents were guaranteed anonymity. Some, however, agreed talk to reporters for stories related to the poll. The results on some questions may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

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THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES

Q: “How would you rate Orange county as a place to work in terms of the opportunities for you in your line of work?”

SALES/CLERICAL Excellent: 48% Good: 37% Fair: 8% Poor: 7%

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BLUE COLLAR Excellent: 36% Good: 42% Fair: 17% Poor: 5%

MANAGEMENT/PROFESSIONAL Excellent: 56% Good: 32% Fair: 9% Poor: 3%

JOB SATISFACTION

Q:"Overall, how satisfied are you with the work you do?”

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Orange County Very satisfied 58% Moderately satisfied 34% Dissatisfied 8%

United States* Very satisfied 46% Moderately satisfied 40% Dissatisfied 14%

* General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center

JOB DEDICATION

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Q:"If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or stop working?”

Continue to work 67% Stop working 32% Don’t know 1%

JOB SECURITY

Q: “How satisfied are you with the following aspect of your job--job security?” Very satisfied 65% Somewhat satisfied 26% Dissatisfied 9%

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THE ORANGE COUNTY WORKPLACE

EMPLOYMENT BY JOB SECTOR

Orange County’s employment base is moving away from manufacturing and toward service activities. Aerospace: 95,143 Construction: 68,093 Finance, Insurance and Real Estate: 91,544 Retail Trade: 214,946 Services: 292,581 Transportation and Public Utilities: 33,832

BUSINESS HOT SPOTS

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The focal point of Orange County’s economy should remain its central core--Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Irvine--but employment centers in South County and other scattered areas will emerge as development continues.

ECONOMIC INDICATORS

Job growth, total employment and personal income continue to rise in Orange County as the jobless rate continues at near full employment levels. Job Growth: 1,203,900 Non-Agricultural Employment: 1,158,247 Unemployment Rate (U.S.): 7.6% Unemployment Rate (OC): 2.7% Personal Income: $53,982,274

Source: State Employment Development Dept., Chapman College Economics and Business Review.

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