Signs

Employers across sectors, in Greene Count and nationally, are finding it difficult to fill all their open jobs as the economy recovers from the pandemic. Many have raised wages and created new bonuses to address ongoing staff shortages.

As the national and local economies recover from the effects of the pandemic, many employers are facing a new challenge: filling available jobs.

Economists note national job growth and layoffs lower than the year 2000, and similar trends have been observed locally.

Greene County Partnership President Jeff Taylor said the county is charted at the eleventh lowest unemployment rate in the state with 4.4%, and the county has seen job growth, too.

“We have had a robust economy, and we have added businesses, so we have job growth on top of an already low unemployment rate,” Taylor said.

From restaurants and retail stores to manufacturers to health care and nearly every other business sector, hiring managers and business owners say they are hiring, but they are having trouble getting those positions filled.

“The trend is the same across the board. They need employees, and they need them yesterday,” said Mark Stevens, special projects manager with First Tennessee Development District.

‘EVERYBODY IS HIRING’

“It’s a struggle,” said Lori Waddle, director of operations with temp agency 411 Services. “I work with clients who are using multiple agencies and still having issues. I think all agencies are.”

“I would say it is definitely an employees’ job market right now. Everybody is hiring, and there are all kinds of different jobs available,” said Theresa Dunn, Human Resources site lead with Jost International, a manufacturer for the commercial trucking industry with operations based in Greene County.

“For the employer, it has been a challenge to recruit and get enough people in to do all of those jobs,” Dunn continued. “We’ve got plenty of work. We are doing really well as far as work coming in, and that’s a good thing, but we need workers to join us. We’ve hired some really good people who are a blessing, but we’re looking for more.”

“There’s always turnover, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as bad with not being able to find anybody,” said Mark Freshour, operations manager for Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. “We normally have a bigger pool to refill those positions.”

Both Dunn and Freshour said that Jost and Greeneville Oil are hiring for a range of positions at a range of pay scales, and those are among a much wider range of jobs available in the county.

“Greene County still has hundreds of jobs available in all business sectors. It is across the board,” Taylor said. “It’s not just a Greene County issue, either. If you go to Hamblen County or other counties, they’ve got the same problem.”

SHORTAGE OF WORKERS

In the health care field, Executive Chairman and CEO of Ballad Health Alan Levine attributes issues the health care system, and others nationwide, are experiencing with increased staff shortages largely to burnout after being “at the front lines of the pandemic even as they have also been caring for the ongoing non-COVID medical needs of our community,” he wrote in a memo to staff dated June 7.

In other sectors, though, increased instances of no-call, no-show job applicants has frustrated employers and led to feelings that perhaps some people simply do not want to work.

“It seems like every day we have people coming in for applications, and then they don’t show back up for the drug test. Sometimes they get completely hired and we tell them, ‘We’re looking forward to seeing you for your first day,’ but when that day rolls around, they don’t show up,” Freshour said.

Dunn said she has observed a similar phenomenon.

“We may go through the interview process and all of those hiring stages, and they don’t show up after that. They don’t always even show up for the interview or orientation, or maybe they do, but they stop coming after that,” she said. “We’ve seen different scenarios. You always have some turnover, but this year and last fall it has been constant, and it has been very, very frustrating. You think you’ve got employees, and then it doesn’t turn out, and sometimes you can’t even reach them to find out why.”

For Quality Inn Manager Dan Patel, this issue is compounded by a low number of applicants.

“We aren’t seeing many people even inquiring about the job,” Patel said. “I’ve been managing this place for about six months and had only probably four applications. Those never even followed up.”

Taylor said the hospitality industry accounts for 22% of unemployment statewide, and many hotels in addition to the Quality Inn are seeking employees.

“There’s jobs, but it seems like nobody wants them,” Zaxby’s manager Shane Slagle said. “We had nine interviews set up last week, and only two showed up. It’s crazy. All kinds of places are hiring, and everybody seems to be having trouble.”

Economists point mainly to what they call a short-term mismatch: Companies are posting job openings faster than applicants can respond. After all, many Americans are contending with considerable tumult at home — health issues related to COVID-19, child-care problems with schools slow to reopen, career uncertainty after many jobs permanently vanished over the past 15 months. And some people, earning more from federal and state jobless aid than they did when they worked, are taking their time before pursuing another job.

“You can say it’s COVID related because that’s how it started, but I think people got used to staying at home,” Freshour said. “I think the problem is there are no employees that wish to work at this time. They’ve had that unemployment increase and the stimulus money, and I wonder if the benefits were just too good to keep working.”

“I believe some folks are drawing more in unemployment than they were making,” said Waddle. “It’s not uncommon for people not to show up or stay in a job long, but usually companies would just use one agency to fill positions, and now they might be using three or four, and they’re still having to shut down shifts because they don’t have enough people.”

MODIFYING OPERATIONS, INCENTIVES

Zaxby’s, as well as nearby competitor Bojangles, recently closed their dining rooms for what managers said they hope would only be a very short time due to staff shortages. Both have remained open on a drive-thru only basis.

Aubrey’s has also closed on Tuesdays for the month of June until more staff can be brought on board.

“We hope we will be back to seven days a week in July, but we are just giving everybody a break until we can get more staff in,” said manager Alex Tipton.

In addition to some places being forced by the low staff numbers to modify operating hours, others have raised wages and added hiring bonuses to attract employees.

“Employers are being really creative with incentive packages and bonuses to be competitive, and lots of them have looked at work hours and pay scales,” said Taylor. “It’s exciting because it could help encourage some of our younger folks to come back home to work.”

MORE THAN MONEY

Still, Taylor said, there are more factors at play than money, and he said he does not see the July 3 end of the additional federal unemployment benefits as the “magic silver bullet.”

“There are a lot of dynamics pulling on our workforce. We have about 1,000 people who leave the county to work in Hamblen, Washington and Sullivan counties, and a lot of kids participate in traveling sports and there are more kids this year in summer school, so that’s going to draw out some of the workforce, as well,” Taylor said. “Plus we have a decade worth of students who were told they should go to college instead of trade schools, so we pulled out a decade of kids that might have gone into some of these industries. We should always continue to educate, but there was a drive to push everybody to college, and some of those students’ goals might have actually been HVAC or they could have gone into another technical field.”

Taylor said studies by the Appalachian Regional Commission have shown another factor involved is a rise in day trading amongst young, working-age males, which he compared to a trend observed by the ARC in 2008, when working mothers left the workforce in droves after they discovered it was more economical to stay home than to pay for childcare.

“There are just a lot of dynamics, but this is a great opportunity to start a new career, because there are jobs everywhere,” Taylor said.

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