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Job climate snapping up first-timers

Surviving as a retail or service business manager in New England is no small accomplishment -- especially since one must endure a never-ending stream of job interviews just to keep the doors open. One positive result, though, has been increased opportunity for a spectrum of people, who might never have been part of the labor force otherwise, to get a shot at a real job.

Bill O'Connor is a freckle-faced teen-ager with strong arms and an ear-to-ear smile who admits he had a hard time learning a former job in a greenhouse. But even though Bill is supposed to be ``learning disabled,'' he was named employee of the month last month at his new job washing dishes at the Westin Hotel at Copley Place in Boston.

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Bill, who earns several dollars more than the minimum wage, has been put in charge of two other people on his shift. He is turned on to the job, he says, ``because they've shown me more what a hard worker should be -- and I feel I know what I'm doing.''

Catherine Keyes, a supervisor with Transitional Employment Enterprises (TEE), which helped place Bill, says her nonprofit firm is having ``good success'' placing people in the work force.

The Westin has, in fact, hired nearly 30 ``disabled'' workers brought to it by TEE. People like Bill are invaluable in such a tight employment market, says Judy Fales, personnel director at the Westin.

``It is hard to get both quantity and quality,'' Ms. Fales says. ``When you get below 4 percent unemployment [in Massachusetts] some of the people aren't just unemployed -- they're unemployable.

``Across the board we're seeing fewer people that are job ready,'' she says. ``That means we are accepting people with less experience, and doing a lot more in-house training.''

Au Bon Pain is a French-style croissant and sandwich chain offering delectable and expensive yuppie-style ham and Brie sandwiches. They are served by young people -- lots of them.

The bevy of college- and high-school-age employees display fast footwork as they bustle behind gleaming glass and chrome counters whipping fancy sandwiches together.

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``We'd like to get college kids that have worked retail before,'' says store manager Theresa Fitzgerald. ``It's real hard, though. A lot of the time we're getting high-schoolers -- and it's their first job.''

Not infrequently, an employee shyly gazes across the counter during the busy lunch hour. He or she doesn't seem to know what to do or say. That generally just means they are new.

``We have to put a lot of time and energy into finding suitable employees. It's a continuous pattern of recruiting, day in and day out.''

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