As the local economy recovers from COVID-19, job openings are popping up everywhere, but employers are finding they can’t always locate the right help. Here’s where to start.
Drive past a fast-food restaurant, movie theater, manufacturing plant or any number of other businesses, and there’s a good chance you’ll come across two words: Now Hiring.
As businesses recover from last year’s COVID-related shutdowns and respond to an increased glut of consumer spending, there’s a growing demand for talented people who can help those businesses to grow. But hiring managers are finding something peculiar in today’s environment: This is an employee’s market. Lately, it’s been harder to find that right kind of candidate – one with the right balance of skills and attitude who’s ready to work.
Why is that? It’s a complicated question, but it’s heavy on the minds of hiring managers and workforce development experts across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
Jim Schmitt, vice president of human resources at Bergstrom Inc., in Rockford, has spent months adapting to changing conditions. Bergstrom is a manufacturer of climate control solutions, the type of equipment that makes its way into heavy-duty trucks, agriculture, construction, mining and specialty vehicles. The firm’s Rockford headquarters hires many engineers, but it also maintains a high number of workers who manufacture and assemble equipment.
Schmitt has seen shortages of workers everywhere, from entry-level positions to highly skilled labor, like maintenance workers and technicians.
“It runs the gamut, because we’ve seen it in all areas of the company,” he says.
So, what’s an employer to do? For many in the manufacturing and hospitality sectors – and other areas of our local economy – the answer lies in a smarter, more open-minded search and a deeper investment in keeping workers happy.
What’s Behind the Numbers
Across Illinois, the unemployment rate this past August was 6.8%, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES). That’s down from 11% the same time last year, when many businesses were still fully or partially closed due to COVID-19 mitigations. This August in Winnebago County, unemployment stood at 8.4% , and in Stephenson County it was 5.6%, down from 11.2% and 7.4%, respectively, last year.
While Winnebago County’s unemployment rate is still up from its 4.8% rate just before the pandemic, there’s a disconnect in today’s job market.
According to IDES, about 144,843 people were counted in the labor force in Boone and Winnebago counties this August. That’s down from 146,676 last August. In Stephenson County, there are about 400 fewer people working today.
So, where did those 2,600 people go, and why aren’t they looking for work? Lisa Bly-Jones, Ed.D., board executive director of The Workforce Connection in Rockford, has been monitoring this question for months. As head of the workforce development board for Boone, Winnebago and Stephenson counties, Bly-Jones is constantly watching trends in employment, and she stays in frequent contact with the area’s top employers.
“When you have a large population that’s not working and all of these jobs exist, how can that be?” she says.
“Well, right in the middle is the skills gap, and what that means is for the number of jobs that exist, people don’thave the necessary skills. People need machinists, but they can’t seem to find people who have those skills.”
The skills gap or “brain drain” has long been on Bly-Jones’ radar, but it seems the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation. For years, area employers have been preparing for a wave of retiring baby boomers in skilled positions – the types that require some form of pre-job training, but not a four-year college degree. Manufacturing, experts recognize, is particularly vulnerable.
Lesly Couper, chief operating officer with Workplace, a staffing agency in Rockford, believes COVID-related shutdowns and changes in the workplace have driven some workers into an early retirement. The result is an accelerated gap between needed work and available talent.
“Some of that has to do with the push toward college and extended education,” she says. “We kind of lost focus on skilled labor and trades, and a lot of kids coming out of high school are being pushed toward higher education, as opposed to getting into a trade and moving their way up.”
While Rock Valley College, Highland Community College, and area school systems including Rockford Public Schools have been addressing those shortcomings for several years now, Couper believes there’s still more to the equation.
“My grandmother had five children, my mother had two children and I had two children, so we’ve never gotten back to the five children that my grandmother had with her generation,” Bly-Jones says. “Our American population is steadily being reduced, and there are just more jobs than there are people.”
More insidiously, Bly-Jones believes fewer people are looking at long-term career goals in favor of more immediate demands for pay and working conditions.
“There are people who aren’t necessarily looking for a career path at a stable employer for a long time, because they’re looking at the immediate,” Bly-Jones says. “You might say, ‘If I stay with you in this hospital, I can grow into another career,’ but I don’t have the time to wait for that. So, people are tending to opt for the most immediate.”
And for many, the most immediate thing was extended unemployment benefits, which just ran out this September and, some suspect, had offered more money than people received at their former jobs. It’s led to a curious situation. Bly-Jones finds that many people who usually would be desperate for a job are suddenly becoming selective.
“It’s normal for executive-level people to think that, but with the extra unemployment dollars, you saw more people evaluating jobs in the same way,” she says. “We’re into a time where more people can be picky and have options. So, people may not want to come out and do hard work at a restaurant, especially if they can be home and do some other job remotely.”
Couper has yet to see a crush of people returning to work after unemployment benefits ran out. She says Workplace’s clients represent more than 140 job openings, many of which are general labor positions – entry-level type jobs that require little previous experience or training.
“A lot of them are with good, local companies that are willing to train them and let them work up the ladder at their company,” she says.
Still, there’s a disconnect between workers and employers.
“It’s more than just the wages,” she says. “It’s the benefits, the work culture and the possibility for advancement. What does a person stand to gain by being employed by an employer? From entry level to executive, people want to know that when they come in the door. People also want to know how much flexibility exists in the workplace.”
One thing the pandemic has done, Schmitt says, is added a bright spotlight on what people’s interests are.
“Since the pandemic, people are deciding that life is too short, and they’re deciding to start their own business, chase a dream, or take some time off because they want to spend time with their family,” Schmitt says. “It seems that it’s become easier for people to leave, quit and pursue other options.”
What to do about Hiring?
Since long before the pandemic, Bergstrom has invested in its employees and provided incentives for them to acquire new skills and higher pay levels. More recently, the company has teamed up with Rockford nonprofit One Body Collaboratives to further accelerate some workers. The Getting Ahead in the Workplace program is broken down into 10 lessons aimed at identifying and overcoming life’s barriers. Talking particularly to people with a lower-income background, these lessons offer practical life skills in areas like personal finances, relationships and support systems.
“We just had our first class graduate,” Schmitt says. “The program helps people build a network of resources, creates stability and simultaneously provides them with a good place to work while giving them the tools they need to get ahead at work. That not only helps us here at Bergstrom, in terms of tenure and reducing turnover, but it also helps the community, because it gives them tools they need to better navigate in the outside world. That’s made a big difference in helping us retain staff.”
The team at Workplace helps Bergstrom to identify appropriate candidates.
“It was a great program, and I think everyone was able to get something out of it,” Schmitt says. “We’re anxious to line up the next group of people.”
Workplace’s specialty is helping local companies to find the right people for the job. Their work begins when somebody walks in the door looking for a new source of employment. The team then helps that individual to connect with open positions that fit their skills and interests.
“As a staffing company, we’re focused on getting people in our doors, so we can interview them and have them fill out an application,” Couper says. “Then, it’s important for us to match them with the company that fits them best. So, whether it’s their skills, the kind of culture they’re looking for, the hours or the shift, we have that flexibility here because we have so many companies that we work with. We try hooking them up with the right employee, because if you find the right fit for the employee, they’ll hopefully stay longer. But, if you put an employee in a job they really shouldn’t be in, it’s a lose-lose for everyone.”
One strategy that Couper has used with success is creating a positive work environment. Creating a friendly and welcoming corporate culture can help lure people and convince them to work for you.
“That’s a huge part of it,” Couper says. “Make sure you have a work environment that your employees enjoy being in and you’re getting the work done, but in a respectful and professional manner. They should make you feel like you belong to a company.”
It also helps when the potential employer is willing to offer a comfortable wage, Couper says. The idea is to bring people in with the corporate culture and use both the culture and financial incentives to keep them longer.
“It’s helpful to give any sort of benefits and trajectory you can give to the employee to show them what they could do if they stayed with your company and how they could make more money if they stayed and worked hard,” she says.
Bergstrom has taken similar measures, in particular increasing wages for its hourly employees.
“We increased our hiring rate in July and made wage adjustments throughout our organization for our hourly positions, which is where we’ve been having the largest problem in terms of recruiting,” Schmitt says.
The adjustments varied and were based on several factors, including length of service with the organization, he adds. Schmitt believes businesses must constantly evaluate extra money as an incentive to attract and retain top talent.
“If you’re able to pay more money, you’re able to increase the talent pool you’re able to draw from, and that’ll attract more people,” Schmitt says. “You also have your peer companies that are competing for the same talent and doing the same thing.”
Bly-Jones and the team at The Workforce Connection focus on connecting people to some of the highest-demand sectors in our region. This includes areas like manufacturing, construction, social services, health care and transportation/logistics. The nonprofit organization receives federal and state funds that support employers with apprenticeships and other training programs.
“Our funds are meant to develop skills in the individuals and help employers by training up their workforce,” Bly-Jones says.
People who turn to The Workforce Connection for help can also get career counseling and other forms of training they need to succeed in the workforce.
“An employer may have a new machine or they want to train their employees on something new to keep them competitive,” Bly-Jones says. “Our funds can be applied toward the training to ensure the employer remains competitive.”
As the hospitality and tourism sector recovers now, John Groh, president/CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, wants to continue building on recent successes. The CVB continues to market more outdoor activities, because that’s what’s recovering fastest. Meanwhile, the team is doing what it can to share best practices with businesses of all stripes.
“We pivoted a lot to provide educational and informational programming,” he says. “We put on webinars that we did twice a week on Zoom that helped people navigate the pandemic, the federal aid programs and the changing health mitigations. We hosted 30 to 40 of those during the pandemic.”
Many avenues for workplace skill-building lead back to Rock Valley College, in Rockford. The community college has a rich array of programs – both certificate and degree – that can get people working quickly.
RVC offers a free career assessment that can help anyone to better focus their job search, training and education.
“This is a free career assessment online, and anyone can take it,” says Cindy Smaha, career services specialist at RVC. “We look at what type of job would be best for them, depending on their work interests, personal interests and skills. After the assessment, we can sit down and discuss the results with them.”
These assessments provide transparent results and offer ideas that can lead a person in new directions. The assessment asks about a person’s strengths and weaknesses, their specific skills, their ideal work environment and their daily interests.
The idea behind the assessment is for community members to get a better gauge on where they’ll best fit. Smaha likes to ask people she meets what they think their dream job is. She’ll then try to build pathways around that dream, because she wants people to be happy in the jobs they take.
“It’s affirming and encouraging for people who take the assessment,” she says. “We can also talk about what type of training or education they’re looking for and what RVC can do for them.”
The college offers revolving programs in hot fields like nursing, cold-form manufacturing, welding and CNC machining. A new Advanced Training Center in Belvidere, scheduled to open this January, will have additional resources to help employers find skilled workers.
As a bonus, RVC helps current and former students and alumni with job search resources as well as a review of their cover letter and resume. They’ll even go so far as to conduct mock interviews on-site.
“My advice is to seek professional assistance and don’t try doing a resume yourself,” Smaha says. “Word templates are nice, but they don’t tell the whole story. Why not get help from a professional where you went to school?”
The Road to Recovery
In Freeport, Andrea Schultz Winter, development director at the Greater Freeport Partnership, is starting to see a rebound in the local economy. The number of jobs available are also decreasing, indicating more positions are being filled.
“There are nearly 1,000 jobs posted, and they encompass not just the hospitality industry, but all employment,” Winter says. “The hospitality industry, along with health care, is a healthy segment of the open positions that we’ve seen.”
Mark Williams, executive director of the Greater Freeport Partnership, says Freeport was reaching its lowest unemployment rate on record when the pandemic hit in March 2020. The following month, the city hit near-record highs.
“I think everything associated with the rapid downturn of the economy impacted all employment sectors initially, causing a hard reset, driven mostly by the unknown and fear of the pandemic,” Williams says. “Our essential employment sectors were steady, but the closures and shutdowns of hospitality businesses caused deep cuts and lingered. We’re coming out of it to a degree. We’ve seen a steady increase of occupancy in our hotels and we’re seeing a steady decrease of help wanted ads in our area as positions are being filled.”
The appearance of new businesses and increased traffic in the hospitality sector indicate a rebound to Winter.
“I think COVID-19 was a time where people reflected on what they wanted to do and how they wanted to make a living and spend their time,” she says. “I think you’re seeing people slowly matriculate back to the workforce.”
Though there may be light at the end of the tunnel, Schmitt believes today’s challenging hiring environment will be around for a while.
“It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out in the next few years,” he says. “I think companies will have to implement new strategies to overcome the labor shortage.”