Noe Valley Voice May 1998

Help Wanted: Lots of Job Notices on 24th Street

By Erin O'Briant

You've probably noticed all the Help Wanted signs around -- it seems like every store in Noe Valley is hiring these days.

During a recent jaunt around the neighborhood, the Voice counted nine Help Wanted signs. And we talked to a couple more merchants who are planning to start hiring this summer.

Turns out, most of the positions are entry-level jobs, though one or two vacancies are for assistant managers. Most stores need retail clerks who will run the cash register, be nice to the customers, and show up for work on time. However, the bright young faces who usually apply for those types of jobs haven't been showing up as often lately.

One store manager on 24th Street is sure she's facing fewer applicants and a higher turnover among employees. "I think people at the age where they would usually work retail jobs are just making so much more money doing other things," this merchant says. She just lost an employee who is now temping for $14 to $16 an hour doing clerical work.

With starting wages for most Noe Valley jobs averaging $7 to $7.50 an hour, $14 is an hourly rate most local employers can't keep up with. At Terra Mia pottery studio, manager Angela Lemus says the store owners would love to pay new employees more than $7 to $8 an hour -- but that's all they can currently afford.

Still, Lemus agrees that low wages are scaring off good workers. "There are so many signs up in the neighborhood simply because these jobs don't pay that much," she said. "And working these retail jobs can be really hard after a while."

But attorney Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, is doubtful that the abundance of job openings signals any sort of trend. "Waitress and waiter jobs come and go all the time," he points out. All these Help Wanted signs may just be part of the normal job cycle.

Carol Yenne, owner of Small Frys children's clothing store and the Merchants Association vice president, also doesn't see a particular pattern. "I think it's a coincidence [that all the vacancies have suddenly popped up]. Or it's a combination of things," she says. "We have lots of jobs for the same reason there are now six vacant stores on 24th Street.

"Definitely there are changes going on in Noe Valley," she continues. "The whole neighborhood is up 20 percent since the first of the year -- just like the stock market. Some shops have really taken off, but some businesses on the fringe have had to call it quits," Yenne says. "There are always more entry-level jobs when that happens."

But many store owners remain convinced that companies in downtown San Francisco and on the Peninsula are luring workers away from the neighborhoods.

"With employment rates so high, people are being offered other jobs they might not ordinarily get," says Alex Gardener, owner of Video Wave on Castro Street. "I used to have a waiting list for people to work here." Now he has a hard time finding people to fill his positions.

"It's been difficult to find people who can do the work for the past two years," Gardener admits. He says many applicants at Video Wave lack even basic skills -- like an ability to alphabetize. "They just get lost among all the videos," he says. "After about a month, they have to go."

Yvette Chamberland, owner of Rose Quartz jewelry store on 24th Street, is also looking for employees with the right background for her shop. "I don't mind training," she says, "but they need to have a real interest in my merchandise." Until she finds a match, she'll "wait for the right person to come along."

Though employers are competing for a shrinking pool of workers, there are still some folks who wouldn't want to work anywhere but Noe Valley. After all, if you live in the area, walking to work sure beats weathering public transit or traffic every day. And none of the local retail stores require their workers to don pantyhose or three-piece suits.

Also, many Noe Valley shops can offer flexible work hours in a pleasant environment.

Yenne of Small Frys recently posted an opening for a retail sales clerk working 20 to 30 hours a week. "My employees tell me they like this job because their customers in Noe Valley are so nice and easy to get along with. Also, 24th Street is very safe, which is something to consider if you are a woman closing up the shop at night."

And store owners often try to find ways to make up for lower wages and fewer perks.

Since he can't afford to offer his workers health insurance, Gardener tries to help out his employees by stocking up on soup, lozenges, vitamins, and cold medicines, "especially during the winter when everyone gets sick," he says. "We try to focus on keeping everybody healthy."

He also allows his workers free video rentals. "If that's what you spend your money on, if you can get it for free, that's money in your pocket," Gardener says.

Any movie buffs out there? Maybe you should walk over and apply.