Charlotte area sees impact of jobless newcomers

CHARLOTTE -- Charlotte has for years been a choice city among a certain breed of newcomer: professionals moving without jobs.

They hear about the warm weather, growing economy and big banks. Sometimes, they visit and are sold on relocating even if they don't have work lined up first.

"They drive around and say, 'Look at this growth. Look at what's happening here,'" said Ed Turner, owner of Smith Turner Group, a job recruiting firm in Charlotte. "People get these illusions of grandeur about the pot of gold that is waiting for them in Charlotte."

Some don't even visit first. They are moved by all the buzz about Charlotte, Turner said.

Like Cynthia Wood, who moved from Danville, Va. in August because she'd heard Charlotte was a "hot commodity."

Do employment dreams come true?

It depends. Some find work right away. Some are still looking or have temp jobs. Some got hired, only to be laid off, thanks to the sagging economy.

Wood said she spends all day on the computer looking for work. But she still doesn't have a job in her chosen field, criminal justice. While she watches for jobs as a probation or parole officer, she's spending through the money she earned on the sale of her house back home.

"Everybody said, 'You could find a job here,'" said Wood, 34, a single mom who graduated in 2006 from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "I am just so frustrated. You go back to school, and you still can't find a job."

No doubt jobs are getting harder to find here. The Charlotte economy has been affected by a national mortgage crisis and sputtering economy. There have been layoffs. North Carolina's unemployment rate for February was slightly higher than the nation's.

But, generally, the job market here has fared as well or better than the overall nation, particularly compared with old economy areas like the Midwest. While Charlotte attracts 80,000 newcomers a year, states like Michigan and Ohio are losing thousands. Still, recruiters and job seekers believe Charlotte is a land of career promise.

"I am disappointed, but I am extending my networking circles," said Rolf Grau, 59. "Something will come up."

Grau moved to Charlotte in 2004 after being laid off by a bank in Manhattan that he'd worked at for 19 years. Coincidentally, he and wife, Yvonne, had just visited Charlotte and liked what they saw.

Between Charlotte's big banks and numerous German-owned businesses, Grau, who is from Germany, figured he could easily find work. After six months, he took the only job he could find -- selling cars. He did that until 2007, when he found a job with an Internet firm, which he said laid him off after six months. He regularly goes to four job-seeker support groups around town. To be sure, not every job-seeking newcomer will have the same fortunes, good or bad. Best odds go to educated white-collar professionals, said Tim Hanson, who teaches the Job Seeking Skills class at Central Piedmont Community College. Displaced members of the old-line economy, such as autoworkers, will have a tougher time. Younger, white-collar professionals will find more jobs -- albeit lower-paid jobs -- to choose from than older ones.

Accountant Alisha Lewis had mixed success finding work in Charlotte. She had a steady stream of temp work, but it took her longer than she expected -- two years -- to find full-time employment. Lewis moved to Charlotte with her young son in August 2005 from New Orleans with just enough cash for one month's rent. "I knew the market was much better," Lewis, 30, said. "I just wanted to move."

And, overall, "it is still better than the Ninth Ward in New Orleans or Detroit," Hanson said. "With the money that is in town, even in bad times, it keeps things relatively better. People do take that gamble and show up unannounced. It has been going on for years."

Some people show up and just get lucky.

Like Tracy Tackaberry, who moved to Charlotte from Rochester, N.Y., in July after graduating college. By mid-August, she had a job at Wachovia's call center, thanks to a recruiter friend.

"I thought this was a safe bet. I knew people," said Tackaberry, 22, who was promoted to a job in loan underwriting in November.

Kim and Gary Colbert also took a chance. They moved to Cornelius, N.C., from St. Petersburg, Fla., in June 2005 without jobs or contacts. They had visited a few months earlier and fell in love with the area.

"I opened up the newspaper and got a job in two days, and my husband got a job right away, too," Kim, 35, said.

She's a massage therapist, and he fixes equipment for a golf course operator.

"We just wanted to move somewhere better to raise our son. The economy was much better. It just seemed like a great place," she said. "We just felt that it was right."