It's been a rough few years for Kentucky. The state's unemployment rate continues to outpace the nation's, as industries from manufacturing to retail were hammered by the recession and only now are starting to show signs of life.
With many of the state's residents still on unemployment and some companies continuing to lay off workers, the question seems to be: Who's hiring?
A number of Central Kentucky firms have begun to do so again, including Toyota, and some did even during the depths of the recession.
A review of state-provided data on employment trends shows educational and health services, which includes health care, has been one of the strongest industries since 2001 with 20.5 percent growth in employment numbers between that time and the second quarter of 2010, the latest period for which the most in-depth employment data is available.
"With the population maturing — not just in Kentucky and in Fayette County but elsewhere — you're going to continue to see health care as a growing industry," said Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the state Office of Employment and Training.
Other growth areas
But health care is just one economic sector that has seen growth or is bouncing back quicker than most.
Professional and business services grew 15.2 percent between 2001 and the second quarter of 2010 and grew 4.3 percent between 2009 and that time period as the recession halted.
One of the companies leading the way in hiring in that sector is outsourcer ACS.
"Our quote is 'In a good economy, we're a good company; in a slow economy, we're a great company,' " said Lexington's Connie Harvey, who is president of the company's Healthcare, Payer and Insurance group.
In 2010, ACS added about 1,000 employees in the state with more than 900 of those in Lexington. Those were increases of 27 percent statewide and more than 40 percent in Lexington. The majority of the hires here were concentrated in a new call center.
The hires consisted of full-time permanent and temporary employees with a wage range starting at $10 hourly, but ACS has also hired salaried management employees.
"Most of the jobs we've expanded in Lexington are in health care and insurance or wireless communication, both of which are in very fast-growing lines of business," Harvey said. "And Lexington's been able to capitalize on that."
While call centers are among the most visible of the company's lines of business, ACS also provides services like document processing.
Other companies have turned to ACS, she said, because with the recession on, "As they start to look at how they can reduce their costs, they look to us."
The company continues to hire and has found that its applicant pool has skewed older as the economy has soured. Traditional applicants were usually between 20 and 30 years old, but now "we see a lot of applicants in the 30-plus and 40-plus age group," she said.
"We expect our Lexington employment to continue to grow," Harvey added. "I don't know that we'll see 1,000 new jobs in 2011, but we'll continue to see an increase in employment in the area."
Another call center expanding is the local operations of Pacific Pulmonary, a home oxygen provider. The company recently announced it would hire 55 full-time staffers at $13.50 hourly.
"Sometimes the uncertain times are the best time to make your investment," said Doug Christopher, the company's vice president of customer care. "The technology is out there and we're really moving away from a lot of manual processes, so we can make our systems smarter and help our people and patients.
"Now is a good time for that investment."
Health care builds out
Call centers for both ACS and Pacific Pulmonary are capitalizing on service related to health care, and why not? Health care continues to grow, as Crouch noted. All of Lexington's hospitals are expanding. Among them is Central Baptist, which is renovating its main facility but also expanding its reach through smaller offices around Central Kentucky.
"There are so many more things now we can provide on an outpatient basis than we could in years past," said Patricia Mason, a vice president at the hospital. "We think it's very important to be close to where people are and make it as convenient as we can since we serve such a broad geographic area."
The hospital expects to open a diagnostic outpatient center in Georgetown by mid-April that will employ about 25 initially, she said.
"We've already started hiring," she added.
The hospital is also expanding its relationship with Wal-Mart. Central Baptist has already opened two clinics inside Wal-Mart stores, and Mason said the hospital just received approval from the state to open 20 additional clinics statewide.
The health care growth goes far beyond hospitals. In Frankfort, Morning Pointe Senior Living has almost finished building The Lantern at Morning Pointe, which will include 34 apartments for people with Alzheimer's or other memory-related illnesses. The $5 million facility will be staffed by 30 to 50 new hires, said spokeswoman Amy Clarke.
A byte out of unemployment
Some technology companies are also growing. University of Kentucky graduate Jeri Smith last year opened a software testing facility here for Galmont Consulting, which she founded, and plans to hire 90 full-time employees with an average wage between $44,000 and $46,000 a year.
The firm has hired seven so far and plans to continue hiring in phases over a three-year period, she said Friday.
"We are positioning our Kentucky office as an alternative to offshore facilities in China and India," Smith said. "It's a lot closer for our Chicago clients and culturally it's a great fit because there's no language barrier or time zone difference."
One of Kentucky's most famous technology companies — biotech, that is — is Alltech, which added 35 new employees in 2010. That's above and beyond temporary workers and normal attrition, said spokesman Billy Frey. It's the equivalent of a 10 percent increase in local staff, he said, and came across a number of departments including marketing, finance, production, research and administration. The company also announced Thursday that it's tripling production of its Kentucky Ale family of beers and plans to hire more salespeople as it expands distribution to several states beyond just Kentucky and Ohio.
In the worst of times
Even though its industry has shed jobs, according to state data, Cincinnati-based grocer Kroger boosted its jobs during the depths of the recession. In April 2009 at Beaumont, the company opened a Kroger MarketPlace, which combines its traditional grocery products with items such as furniture and jewelry. Two months later, a renovated version of its store at Richmond Road near Man o' War Boulevard became a MarketPlace. Both stores added more than 100 employees each upon opening, and received up to four times that amount in applications, said spokesman Tim McGurk.
And manufacturing, which was among the hardest hit industries, is starting to see a bounce back. Because of higher sales volume forecasts, Toyota's sprawling plant in Georgetown, its largest in North America, plans to hire more than 800 temporary assembly line workers in the next few months. Spokesman Rick Hesterberg told the Herald-Leader last week that the company has also hired a handful of employees from the temporary ranks into its full-time staff.
The company never laid off any full-timers throughout the recession or its struggles with model recalls but did cut into its temporary pool, which has been the object of criticism at Toyota and other automakers because workers earn less but do similar work.
"The variable workforce is part of our strategy and our industry's strategy of managing the automotive business," Hesterberg noted.
With evidence including an automotive rebound, Crouch, among the state's most prolific statisticians, said he hopes "we have started a turnaround in the economy."
"One of the things we have to start talking about in this country is sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and that means making investments," he said.
And that's precisely the motto followed by some of these companies.
As Christopher of Pacific Pulmonary put it: "If you want to keep growing more, you have to make sure you're investing in the business."