Thursday, March 6, 2008 | When Karen Turk’s daughter announced a year ago that she was engaged, Turk enthusiastically offered to throw her a wedding, circling March 15, 2008 on her calendar and launching into mother-of-the-bride mode.

But the wedding planning began before Turk was laid off from her job at an escrow company in July. And before her second pink slip came in October from the escrow company she moved to. And before December, when she was laid off again from a third escrow company.

LandAmerica, a massive real estate company, consecutively acquired all three of the companies and downsized in response to the region’s listless housing market. Turk’s since cashed in her 401(k) accounts and signed up for unemployment benefits.

“During the year, I’m having to plan a wedding not knowing if I’m going to have a job,” Turk said. “This is my only daughter; how can I say no?”

Turk’s not alone. A 20-year veteran of the escrow business, she guesses 98 percent of the people she’s worked with have been laid off and thrust into a burgeoning pool of job-seekers. Every month, San Diego loses more high-paying jobs, especially those tied to real estate.

“I can count the ones who are left on one hand,” Turk said of her friends in the real estate industry. “This is all they’ve ever done. You’re thinking, ‘What do I do now? How do I recreate myself?’”

And with every release of weaker job growth numbers, local economists issue bleaker prognoses for the region, cranking up their warnings that San Diego is growing bottom-heavy. Underemployment has supplanted unemployment as a major concern. Since 1990, the region has been creating eight jobs in the bottom third of wages for every one job created at the top, according to a Sandag study. And for workers with honed skills like Turk, it’s not as easy as just going out and finding another job.

“Some of the people who are losing their jobs, they might be segueing into those other jobs,” said Gary Moss, labor market information specialist for the San Diego Workforce Partnership. “But as a viable option, with a comparable salary, it’ll be a stretch for most people.”

San Diego County’s biggest job losses over the year have been in the construction and finance/real estate sectors — good-paying jobs in sectors that rocketed with the housing boom. The state Employment Development Department’s initial estimates for January released last week showed an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent and significant payroll losses in construction and in finance and real estate compared to January 2007.

Meanwhile, the growing sectors were jobs in restaurants and hotels and in education and health services, predominantly lower-paying jobs.

“Every time we celebrate over rising employment, but we realize that we’re creating jobs at the bottom,” said Murtaza Baxamusa, director of research and policy for the Council on Policy Initiatives, a liberal think tank focused on local worker issues. “If we’re continuing to gain jobs in the lower end, there’s some kind of substitution where people are being pushed down.”

Marney Cox, chief economist for Sandag, called the imbalance a “significant problem” and marveled that job-creation ratio doesn’t stop the region from wooing new hotel and visitor-oriented development without seriously investing in the things that would draw better-paying jobs. Those investments might include more efficient water and energy supply and transportation to world markets, Cox said, the kinds of investments that paint San Diego as not just a place businesses schedule their industry’s annual symposia but an attractive place to move the company’s headquarters.

Cox and Baxamusa emphasized that when lawmakers approve those new developments, they’re setting a precedent for the way the economy will be structured. Instead of passively accepting the plans of developers for new hotels and tourist attractions, the region’s leaders should examine each decision in light of how the land could be used to foster better jobs, they argue.

“I think the public sector sees [hotel taxes] and sales taxes as good because they’re immediate sources of income,” Cox said. “But in the long run it’s not doing their constituency much good. And there’s a lot of those [projects] in front of us today.”

It’s not the first time the region’s had to ponder the structure of its economy. In the mid-1970s, a recession slugged the local manufacturing industry, Cox said.

“The next big thing for us was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a drop in the defense sector, high value-added jobs,” Cox said. “One set manufacturing back on its ear nationwide, and the second part hurt more for us — the change in the military.”

Cox said a strategy emerged after that 1970s recession to court Japanese businesses, like Sony, which headquartered in San Diego.

And the region sought “visitor industry infrastructure,” Cox said — the convention center, the Wild Animal Park, Legoland, the zoo expansion.

That’s when job growth started to grow out of whack, Cox said. When California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 to limit the property taxes levied on individual property owners, governments began to focus on revenues they could obtain more quickly, like sales and hotel-room taxes — the kind of revenues promised when new hotels and retail developments are proposed.

Now, Baxamusa said, public officials must take into account the economic impact of their decisions.

“Every single land-use decision we make as a city, it says something about the society we want to grow into,” Baxamusa said.

Still, thousands of out-of-work San Diegans need help now. Middle-aged, single-career workers like Turk need considerable training to even think about making the kind of money they were making before. She said managers like her were making between $70,000 and $100,000.

“I’ve already resigned myself that if I make half of the $75,000 I’ll be happy,” she said. “For someone in your 50s, in your early 50s, it’s readjusting your entire lifestyle.”

Turk signed up for classes at the North County Career Center, a training venue affiliated with the Workforce Partnership. The local Workforce Partnership was recently allotted about $200,000 in federal funds to help laid-off mortgage sector workers retrain and find new jobs.

“It’s taking skills people might have and translating that across into other industries,” said Jessica Mosier, a program specialist with the Workforce Partnership.

Turk is learning computer skills and hopes to begin night classes to become a medical assistant. Even the way she knows how to look for jobs — the newspaper — has changed since the last time she went job-hunting, decades ago, she said.

“If they’re not buying homes, people still get sick, they get colds and chicken pox,” she said. “I wonder, will I go back in the housing market again? I don’t want to do this again.”

Alan Gin, economist at the University of San Diego, said he’s ratcheting down his optimism from earlier months, but still holds the region won’t experience a technical recession with negative job growth.

With local universities churning out thousands of degreed professionals every year, Gin theorized some San Diegans have taken a job with less pay to live here. It’s like Tony Gwynn sticking with the Padres, he said.

“It’s the San Diego discount,” he said. “In a pure sense, as an economist, you think, ‘Well, if it’s making people happy then it’s OK.’ But you have this problem where people might be happy, but they’d be happier if they were paid better.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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