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Swimming Against the Tide : Economy: Some companies that sell services or have cornered the market on novel products prosper in a bad business climate.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As her engineering staff became overburdened with air pollution studies last July, Carolyn Means decided to ease their workload by hiring a secretary to handle the growing paperwork.

With that decision, Means created a $19,000-a-year job at her Ventura environmental consulting firm that drew Jody Goodrich out of the ranks of the unemployed.

“I feel real fortunate,” said Goodrich, 29, of Ventura, who had been laid off twice since last November, by an accounting firm and a microwave-switch manufacturer. “I’ve found something I enjoy doing, being involved with environmental issues.”

In a county that is home to more than 30,000 unemployed people, a single new job at West Coast Environmental Inc. does little to ease general economic hardship.

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But Means’ firm is just one of a number of companies that have expanded their work force in spite of the 16-month-old recession.

While the engine driving Ventura County’s economy is still sputtering--joblessness is at a five-year high of 7.8%--many companies continue to tap the labor market for more workers.

Within the last year, Amgen Inc. has hired about 275 scientists, administrators and distribution workers at its Newbury Park biopharmaceuticals plant, boosting its local work force to nearly 1,200. The company, which produces drugs that combat anemia and cancer, plans to hire up to 600 more people within two years.

“A large part of our growth has been hindered by a lack of space to put people,” company spokesman Mark Brand said. “To alleviate that problem, we’ve got six buildings under construction in the Thousand Oaks area.”

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In Ventura, Clamshell Building Inc. has doubled its work force from 15 to 30 permanent employees due to growing demand for its portable building shells. The company supplied more than 140 of them as utility buildings in the Persian Gulf War and recently shipped a $1.5-million model to Belgium to house six tennis courts and seats for 6,000 spectators.

“You need differentiation in your product so no one can touch you, and you need to be a low-cost leader,” said Wayne Ni, Clamshell’s vice president of finance and administration. “There is no other product out there like ours.”

Utah-based Smith’s Food and Drug Center hired 160 people as baggers, produce clerks, meat cutters and checkers for the September opening of its Oxnard supermarket. Demand for the $4.75 to $15-an-hour union jobs was extraordinary, with more than 2,400 people applying, state employment officials said.

“When you have a recession, a certain portion of the population stops working, but most of the economy still keeps going, and there are industries and companies that continue to expand,” said Peter Force, a research analyst with the California Employment Development Department.

Analysts are quick to note that the county’s economy is far from recovery.

More than 2,000 jobs have been lost in the last year alone in high-tech manufacturing, transportation and utility industries. And the number of construction jobs dropped by 1,000, reflecting the state of the real estate market.

“We’ve been up to our elbows in alligators just trying to process (unemployment) claims,” said Avelina Villalobos, manager of the state employment office in north Oxnard. “We don’t have much staff dedicating time to placing people in jobs.”

“In the last 18 months, more than 7,000 workers have been displaced in the county by plant closures,” said Phil Bohan, contracts manager of the Job Training Policy Council of Ventura County.

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“There haven’t been a lot of sterling areas in this economy,” said Bohan, whose agency provides job training to unemployed workers.

But the county gained 800 jobs in services, a category that covers everything from cosmetologists to lawyers. Health services gained 600 jobs alone.

And though the manufacturing sector is weak, the medical-supply and pharmaceutical industries have stood out as relatively solid performers.

“Capital-intensive industries like construction and manufacturing are generally the hardest hit, as they have been in every recession since World War II,” Force said. “Services are more recession-proof . . . such as health care.”

Many of the new jobs pay barely subsistence wages, even for a single person, of less than $750 a month. Image Labs Inc., an Oxnard hair-products manufacturer, recently took on 30 new employees at the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.

Many companies that are still prosperous have cornered the market on novel or patented products, as Clamshell and Amgen have.

Ventura-based Kinko’s Copies Inc. expanded its staff by 30% in the last year on the strength of sales at 620 photocopying stores in the United States, Canada and Japan. It now employs 200 in its Ventura corporate office.

“The company as a whole has been growing so quickly that more workers were needed to service the stores in the field,” said Kinko’s spokeswoman Judy Bartlein.

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Most of the growing companies share characteristics critical to business success in lean times, said Mary Valencia, managing partner of Techstaff Inc. of Thousand Oaks, an employment agency.

“They are mostly companies that have been very prudent in their business operations,” Valencia said. “They don’t have a lot of fat and they are real sure-footed.”

But even those more successful at weathering the economic downturn are not immune to shifts in demand for their goods and services. Clamshell’s temporary assembly crew has been cut by more than 50% since the frenzied production required during the Persian Gulf conflict.

Said Ni: “We all have peaks and valleys.”


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