Heather Kolke of Lewiston is ready to return to the workforce as the pandemic wanes but she is looking for the right opportunity.
“I want to get back out there,” Kolke said.
Kolke is interested in a full-time job but wants a position, perhaps in health care, that pays at least $18 an hour.
Meanwhile, Bridgestone APM is hiring for production jobs at its Sanborn plant with a starting wage of $15.69, and extra pay for second- and third-shift jobs. Competition for new employees is fierce, said Amanda Martin, talent business partner with the company.
“They can walk out today and get a job even at Taco Bell that’s paying $16 an hour” and maybe get a signing bonus, Martin said. “So we’re competing with fast food and things like that.”
As the economy recovers from the pandemic, employers are clamoring to hire, while job hunters are weighing their options. Nick Bunker of the Indeed Hiring Lab refers to this as an “urgency mismatch.”
The Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate has fallen dramatically — 5.3% in May compared with 15.5% a year earlier — but remains above pre-pandemic levels. Nationally, the “quits rate,” which reflects employees’ confidence about finding another job, remained close to an all-time high in May, according to federal statistics.
Many employers contend the federal government’s $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits — set to expire Sept. 6 — is keeping people on the sidelines who would otherwise be job candidates. But observers say other factors are also influential, including child care issues and reluctance about returning to the workplace due to Covid concerns. And some, including President Biden, say employers need to update their expectations about the wages new hires will accept.
“Pay them more,” Biden said last month. “This is an employees’ bargaining chip now.”
Donald Jablonski, director of Niagara County Employment and Training, said businesses are “desperate to hire, they really are.”
And when employers can’t properly staff up, there’s a ripple effect, Jablonski said. “They can’t turn out product,” he said. “The supply chain is bogged down. The hospitality industry, the restaurant industry can’t open fully because they can’t grab enough employees to hire.”
Employers are trying different incentives and tactics to attract new hires.
Nuttall Gear, a division of Altra Industrial Motion, is offering $1,000 retention bonuses at its Wheatfield manufacturing plant to new hires who stay for at least six months, and $1,000 referral bonuses to current employees. “This is the first time we’ve tried that,” said Diane McMullen, human resources generalist.
The company plans to hire as many as 10 workers by year’s end at its plant. But it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s a very difficult job market right now,” McMullen said. “We get resumes and we call people for an interview and people don’t even return your call.” Some of the jobs Nuttall is hiring for, such as CNC machinists, require a certificate, so the labor pool for those positions is smaller.
Bridgestone APM, which makes seat cushions for Honda CRVs, says its retention and referral bonuses of $1,200 have proven effective. “That has been our best return on investment from a numbers standpoint,” Martin said. “Our turnover rate’s much lower from that than our methods of recruiting.”
The company also has accelerated a program that boosts employees’ pay based on performance. Employees who start out earning $15.69 an hour who perform well can earn nearly $20 an hour within 12 months, instead of requiring 18 months to reach that level, as in the past.
Bridgestone APM is offering other incentives to attract and keep workers, including 401(k) match starting on day one, tuition assistance, adoption assistance and pet insurance. Martin said those kinds of ideas came from employees’ feedback. “We heard them out and we added these things because of that,” Martin said.
Finding a fit
While employers try to make themselves more appealing to new hires, job hunters like Savannah Davis of Lockport are evaluating what’s available.
Davis makes $15.50 an hour working at a KFC. “I just want to have a big-girl check, because they can’t give us 40 hours [a week], and in today’s world, you need 40 hours to make it with rent and stuff,” Davis said.
She was looking for a job that would ideally pay $17 or $18 an hour, with a work week of at least 40 hours.
“I want to see who’s out there, who has better pay, what kind of benefits I can get,” she said. Davis was attending a job fair in Lockport on a day off from work but she couldn’t find a babysitter and brought her 3-year-old daughter, Jazmine, with her.
Child care is another expense Davis has to think about. She tries to save some money from her paychecks and has called around to ask about day care prices, “and it’s almost a check.”
Ben Regester of Akron was thinking about a change of pace in his career. He has a job with the post office, and is just coming off Covid orders with the New York Army National Guard. He was looking for a job in the $17-per-hour range as he handed out his resume at the job fair. “I’m just trying to see what’s out there,” he said.
At the national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the number of job openings in May was 9.21 million, another record high. Meanwhile, the “quits rate” dropped slightly to 2.5% but remained close to a record high. And layoffs remained at a record low, according to government statistics.
Wages remain another factor. New York State’s minimum wage is $12.50, but employers find they must offer well above that amount to compete for talent. There has been wage growth recently, after a decade of wage growth that essentially kept pace with inflation. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the fourth quarter of 2020 showed average weekly wages in Erie County increased 14% over the previous year.
Brooke Felgemacher, branch director for Robert Half International in Buffalo, said signs point to a candidate-driven job market. And those candidates want good pay and perhaps a hybrid or work-from-home arrangement to take a job.
Felgemacher said Robert Half about six months ago started to see job candidates asking for higher pay. Many of them had received stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits, and some even took pay cuts last year.
“I think that was kind of the first point where there was a disparity, because the candidates were asking for more money, and companies and clients of ours were not willing to budge on that,” she said.
Some employers are now offering higher pay after finding they couldn’t attract applicants. And companies willing to be flexible about remote work have discovered it expands their talent pool.
“On a local level, you could hire somebody in Rochester, you could hire somebody in Syracuse,” she said. “You could hire somebody anywhere to do the job and have more options for talent that way, instead of just relying on what’s in the Buffalo market.”
Beyond pay and benefits, Felgemacher said employers should think about what will make a job attractive to a candidate, especially when that person might have other options.
“No longer can you drag this out to three, four rounds of interviews, a monthslong hiring process,” she said. “The good candidates are going to be gone.”
As the economy emerges from the pandemic, a recurring theme is the pace of job hunting. Indeed surveyed 5,000 adults and found many job seekers didn’t feel a great sense of urgency. Only about 10% of survey respondents were classified as “actively looking, urgently” for jobs.
“Many employers want to ramp up hiring quickly, but a large portion of job seekers are hesitant to start jobs now,” said Bunker, the Indeed Hiring Lab’s economic research director for North America. “Thus, job search this summer may continue to be sluggish, but the lack of urgency appears to be temporary.”
The further decline of Covid-19, the end of enhanced jobless benefits and the return of school in the fall are factors that could “increase the intensity of job searches by the unemployed,” Bunker said.
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