KENNEWICK -- David Barajas knows exactly how difficult it is to find a job with only a high school diploma.
Barajas said he repeatedly found himself unsuccessfully competing for jobs against people with more experience and training.
The 23-year-old Kennewick resident realized that he needed to go back to school and enrolled at Columbia Basin College.
And now, as a second-quarter accounting student at the Pasco college, Barajas still is competing for open jobs, but with a better chance thanks to his additional training and an improving job market.
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Finding a job as a student always is a challenge, said Candice Bluechel, WorkSource Columbia Basin business services manager. And she said it's even more of a challenge now because of the number of unemployed adults which students are competing against, although there are signs of hope.
In March, there were 11,020 people in Benton and Franklin counties who were unemployed and actively seeking work, according to the state Employment Security Department.
Benton County had a 7.8 percent unemployment rate that month, while Franklin County was at 9.4 percent.
Barajas was hired a couple of weeks ago to work at CBC's student employment center. He said he heard about the job from another student who works there, but he also has used the office's job postings in his job search.
Barajas said he still is looking for after-school work to help pay his bills while he also works as a temporary worker through Manpower.
It's a good time to be looking. Job openings are increasing in the Tri-Cities, which is typical for this time of year, Bluechel said. Agricultural employment is up, and seasonal help also is needed for tourism-related industries such as hospitality and retail.
As of this week, WorkSource Columbia Basin had 504 job postings for Benton County and 179 job postings for Franklin County, Bluechel said. A job posting can include more than one position.
However, employers seem to be cautious about adding new positions, and might be adding fewer than they would in previous years, she said.
And instead of hiring employees directly themselves, they might turn to a temporary employee agency such as Manpower to find seasonal labor, Bluechel said.
The Richland Target is looking for more employees as business picks up and typically does hire students. Amanda Davis, the store's human resources executive team leader, said that the store has about 10 part-time positions open on its average staff of 104 employees.
Davis said Target is having difficulty finding applicants. She has noticed that some seem to be just trying to apply to enough places to keep receiving unemployment benefits.
CBC actually has seen more job openings so far this year compared with the same time last year, said Daphne Lightfoot, associate director of financial aid and student employment.
Last year at this time, there had been 222 positions posted for the year with the student employment office representing 365 openings, she said. This year, there have been 258 positions representing 531 openings, she said.
CBC's job center also is busy with students and community residents looking for jobs and help, Lightfoot said. The student employment office is open to the community and has job listings and resources to help people searching for jobs.
LoAnn Ayers, Washington State University Tri-Cities Career Development Center director, said she has told students to start early in looking for summer employment and to prepare and have a strategy. Because of the tighter competition, job seekers need to put in effort to stand out from the crowd.
"It's a challenging job market," Ayers said.
Most summer internships already were filled by spring break, she said.
Nationwide last year, only 24 percent of new graduates in May and June had jobs at graduation, she said. She has been telling students that statistic to emphasize how tough the job market is.
Putting out the effort has paid off for Mike Stahl of Hermiston, a WSU Tri-Cities junior who is pursuing a mechanical engineering degree.
Stahl, who is returning to college at age 50, said he attended a seminar that Ayers held about how to do employer meet-and-greets. Then he attended his first job fair at WSU Tri-Cities in March.
That's where Stahl came in contact with HiLine Engineering and Fabrication of Richland. He said he thinks his experience and drafting degree helped him land the job with HiLine that he started Thursday.
As Ayers had advised, Stahl said he called to check back in with the employer a week after the job fair. That led to an interview and offer for employment as an engineering assistant for the summer and school year.
Stahl said he had applied for internships, but the first time he put out extra effort was for the job at HiLine.
A self-employed mechanic before, he decided to return to school. Stahl said he was apprehensive to be in the job market at his age. But he said he was honest, wanted it and put in the effort. He hopes the job at HiLine Engineering and Fabrication could turn into a career after he earns his degree.
WorkSource Columbia Basin is holding a job fair May 26 at its office in Kennewick from 1 to 6 p.m.
* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org