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Business’ Biggest Problem Is Shortage of Good Help

Heading into 1998, Orange County businesses share the usual assortment of worries, from the direction of interest rates to the Asian currency crisis. But the most common refrain continues to be that it’s increasingly difficult to find qualified workers.

It’s a complaint voiced by business people around the country in the last several months. In a recent survey of more than 400 chief executives of fast-growing companies, Coopers & Lybrand found that the worker shortage was viewed as the largest impediment to growth in the year ahead.

Experts say the problem is particularly acute in areas of extremely low unemployment, such as Orange County. With the county’s jobless rate hovering below 4% all year, executives in fields ranging from retail to high-tech say staffing will be their biggest challenge in the near future. The scarcity of potential employees has become so severe, they say, that their productivity and competitiveness are being threatened.

Martin Diedrich, vice chairman of the Irvine-based coffee house chain Diedrich Coffee Inc., is one of many local executives who say the lack of qualified workers has become their chief concern. Too many applicants “just have no skills,” Diedrich said. In his business, Diedrich said, he’s looking for “pretty straightforward stuff--being attentive, being interactive.”

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He worries that young people might not be picking up good work ethics at home or in school. And that could come back to haunt the economy, he believes.

“We’re becoming an increasingly more service-oriented society,” he said. “Yet a lot of the service providers are incapable of being competitive because of this work attitude. The tide can only rise as high as the least capable people.”

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Patrice Apodaca covers economic issues for The Times. She can be reached at (714) 966-5979 and at patrice.apodaca@latimes.com.

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