As the employee pool dwindles,  employers get creative

There are 700 open jobs in Barron County, Wis. according to the county’s economic development executive director Dave Armstrong.   

“Every single day I have employers talking to me about empty positions and how to fill them,” he said.

Blamed on everything from Baby Boomers retiring in record numbers, to potential employees who can’t pass drug tests, to a competitive market, Barron County is among many regions facing a record high labor shortage. 

According to Minnesota Employment and Economic Development, signs of a tight job market continue to surface, with the number of unemployed in the state falling below 90,000 for the first time since 1999. The unemployment rate is Minnesota is 2.8 percent; Wisconsin 3 percent, and unemployment rates reached historic lows in close to 40 percent of states, leading many employers to go to new lengths to attract staff members. 

To combat the need for employees Barron County recently launched a video campaign boasting a low crime rate, great schools, solid careers and friendly communities.

That said, the county also faces a significant housing shortage.

“We’ve got a study going on right now to address how we are going to provide more affordable housing for people who want to relocate here,” Armstrong said. “We can’t attract people to these good jobs if there is nowhere for them to live.”

Armstrong also encourages employers to offer incentives to prospective employees that go above and beyond signing bonuses. One such perk is employer paid closing costs when they do purchase a house.

“This is a realistic way to help an employee purchase a home and become part of and remain in the community,” he said.

At Lake Superior College Director of  Institutional Advancement Dan Fanning said employers in the region are coming to them “in desperation.” 

“We are always working with industry partners to find them employees and we are recruiting students into programs where we can guarantee them a job on the other end,” he said. “We are looking at things in a new way to get ahead of this issue.”

Part of that is changing the mindset that young people need a four year degree to be successful and make a good living. 

“Companies are having to adapt to this new mindset as well and raise the standards wage-wise,” Fanning said. 

Fanning said the worker shortage spanned across almost every field, from health care, manufacturing and aviation to construction and welding.”

“There’s a huge need in all areas,” he said.  “Let’s just look at aviation mechanics. They are going to have a need for 250,000 more in the coming years. That number came directly from Boeing.  I wish we had five to 15 years to figure this out, but we don’t.”

Fanning is encouraging employers to get creative with recruitment and retention.

“Employers have to offer good wages and a great work environment to gain and keep employees,” he said.

At Superior Fuel president Ryan Gunderson has taken to putting up billboards soliciting employees and offering them enhanced benefit packages.

“We are trying to bring people from outside the industry into it,” he said. “We’ve taken an approach that this isn’t just a job, this is a career.”

To that end the company offers a 401K match, short and long-term disability, life insurance, partially paid health insurance, dental insurance and cell phone reimbursement. Delivery jobs start at $20 an hour, which Gunderson noted is above the average for the heating and propane industry. Superior Fuel also offers on-the-job training and pays for employees to get their commercial driver’s license and Hazmat license. 

Gunderson said for the past year and half Superior Fuel has struggled to fill positions. He cited one of the challenges to attracting employees as the younger generation doesn’t view his industry as a viable option for a career.

“That’s why we are trying to bring awareness to these jobs,” he said. “We are recession proof. These are good jobs that pay well and offer benefits. We want people to see us as a career and not just a job and to do so we have to have a great work environment and good pay and benefits.”

At St. Louis County Human Resources Director James R. Gottschald said the county has struggled to fill positions, but focuses on making itself a great place to work.

“It’s a fair statement to say that our applicant pools have declined over the years as there are more employment opportunities per job seeker as in previous years,” he said.  “In many instances, candidates are no longer seeking opportunities as far away from their home base as we have seen in the past as well. We don’t expect that to change much in the near future either, given the projected workforce demographics. Fortunately, we have experienced good retention in most of our positions as the county is a great place to work, so our struggle is more on the onboarding side of recruitment than retention.”

Small businesses have struggled as well in recent years. In Superior, Red Mug coffee shop owner, Suzanne Johnson said she has had to be very accommodating of her employees’ school schedules and social lives to keep them on staff. 

“Up until very recently I would agree fully that it was very difficult to find good candidates for employment,” she said. “I will admit I creep on peoples’ Facebook pages and have rejected people based solely on what I’ve found in a quick search. Thankfully, this last time I looked for help using the hiring site Indeed and was very happy to receive many solid candidates. 

Currently most of her staff members are in their 20s and it took Johnson a while to figure out what motivated them. Surprisingly, it’s not all about the cash.

“For the most part, it is not the money,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, they like earning money, but I think what they like most is having a flexible schedule. I bend over backwards to accommodate their school schedules and social lives. I also encourage them to come to me with suggestions and ideas for events, menu items and so forth. They seem to enjoy that their opinions matter and are considered.”

Her employees also appreciate working in a pleasant environment, one that is inclusive and diverse. 

“They often comment that Red Mug is fun, relaxing and a place where they can be themselves,” she said. “I have had people that have hated working here. They came in thinking it would be a chill coffeehouse job and instead found it was hard work, not at all what they had in mind. Some people have not liked my style of management. I expect people to be on time, do a good job, be honest, kind, etc. I think as adults they should know these things and if they don’t exhibit them I quickly let them know my expectations. I give second chances but never thirds.”