8,000 jobs opened in Mid-Michigan and a labor shortage. The reason is complicated


SAGINAW, MI – With people spending more time at home in the past year and a half than ever before and many homeowners using pandemic stimulus controls to make improvements, the heating and cooling operations of Cody Sweatland are booming.

“There was this rush of work like I’ve never seen before,” said Sweatland, owner of Saginaw-based Valley Heating and Cooling. “I started to take a look at my workload and all of a sudden we were months and months away.”

The owner of the small business found himself working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and still couldn’t keep up with demand. But hiring help has proven to be just as difficult.

“I think I had four or five people who came to work for a few days, everything seemed to be going well. I would offer them a salary, they would agree. And then, you know, in a week, they would just stop showing up, ”he said. “Normally I try to hire people with some experience. I got to the point this year where I was ready to take anyone.

Sweatland isn’t the only employer struggling to keep people on their payroll.

There were thousands of jobs open in mid-Michigan at the end of July. New jobs posted on Pure Michigan Talent Connect in and around Saginaw County just in the past week include construction project manager, electrical engineer, business account specialist, cook, cashier, doctor, office worker, housekeeper , a substitute teacher and a phlebotomist.

“Right now in our area there are approximately 8,000 jobs open,” said Chris Rishko, CEO of Great Lakes Bay Michigan Works, referring specifically to Saginaw, Bay, Midland, Gratiot and Isabella counties. “I don’t think you can walk down a street anywhere and not see a ‘help needed’ sign in a window.”

Jobs are available, but workers are scarce.

“We’ve had job fairs where we have 27 employers and we’ve had two job seekers,” Rishko said.

The reason for this labor shortage is multifaceted and was in the making even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Several factors, including a lack of region-wide and statewide child care services, an aging workforce, fear of COVID-19, and improved unemployment benefits, have created a “storm perfect ”that“ keeps people out of the workforce ”.

“Before COVID, it was difficult. During and after COVID, it is even more difficult because this group of people who are working or looking for work has decreased, ”said Rishko.

Vicki Gibbons is the store manager at Maurices, a women’s clothing retailer at Fashion Square Mall. As the store’s hiring manager, she posts job postings on Indeed, LinkedIn and other social media platforms and does face-to-face networking and recruiting as much as possible.

“To be honest, I’ve been hiring fairly regularly for the past year,” she said. “I can’t really say for sure what is preventing people from applying, but I’m even struggling to get applications. “

Gibbons is aiming to hire a new part-time manager, a position that will be vacant in September, and four or five stylists ahead of the busy holiday shopping season. To facilitate recruitment, she set up a tenant committee at the mall, which recently held a job fair there. Maurices was one of 10 participating employers, along with Buckle, JCPenney, Spencer’s, American Eagle Outfitters and others.

“It was very successful,” she said of the job fair. “People were interested. People filled in the applications on the spot. There were store managers who walked away saying, “I’m definitely hiring based on the people I’ve met today.” And it’s so refreshing to see.

Much has changed over the past year and a half. At the start of the pandemic, some employers closed their doors and the unemployment rate quickly rose above 20%, Rishko said. Later, when the economy started to open up and employers had to bring workers back, they faced a whole different set of circumstances. Some people were afraid to return to work due to the persistent threat of COVID-19. Some people, especially low-paid workers, were able to earn more money by not working because of the increase in unemployment benefits. And some people, especially women, had to stay at home with children who were learning virtually. Between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 135,000 Michigan women left the workforce.

“So we have these three big things that really work together to create a perfect storm,” Rishko said. At the same time, “consumer spending hasn’t stopped throughout COVID. There is still a strong demand for goods and services.

Companies looking to fill positions that pay $ 15 an hour or less, such as restaurants and some healthcare facilities, are struggling the most.

“These are the ones who have extreme difficulty finding talent,” he said.

To combat this, employers are trying new recruiting techniques, offering enrollment bonuses and flexible hours, investing in child care and post-employment training, and increasing wages.

The H Hotel in Midland recently announced that it will pay sign-up bonuses of up to $ 750 to new hires, and Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort and Saganing Eagles Landing Casino & Hotel have raised their minimum wages to $ 15 from the hour for workers without tip and at $ 8. per hour for tip workers.

“They are doing everything they can to really try to get people,” Rishko said.

Another factor contributing to the local labor shortage that was in play long before the onset of the pandemic is the region’s aging population. Baby boomers are retiring and there are not enough young workers to replace them.

“Some people call it the ‘silver tsunami’,” Rishko said. “So on top of COVID, we have an aging workforce… which makes it even harder for employers to find talent. “

Sweatland said it has seen this trend in its own industry as fewer young people are choosing skilled trades.

“There are a lot of good paying jobs in the area if you learn a skilled trade, and I think it’s just overlooked at times,” he said. “I’ve been hearing it for years now. There’s just a lot of guys in the industry that’s, you know, older, they’re thinking about retirement, and they just have no idea who they’re going to have to fill their shoes with.

Sweatland, who currently employs four people in his heating and air conditioning business, said the hardest thing about the labor shortage was disappointing or losing customers when they didn’t. the ability to take on new jobs and not know why applicants hadn’t done so. show up when they said they would.

He said his job can be physically demanding, but he tries to be a good boss, pay a fair wage, and offer extra perks like free lunches and weekend bonuses.

“It was a bit difficult and a bit painful,” he said. “Lots of no-shows. A lot of people have just decided, for one reason or another, I’m not interested. And I think part of that may just be because there are so many jobs available now and a lot of places are increasing their wages and it’s hard to keep pace. “

Sweatland believes worker health and safety concerns and the changing outlook amid the pandemic are also contributing to this trend.

“There are a lot of people who have a very simple and easy opinion of what is wrong. They say, “Oh, there is too much government money”, and I don’t think the answer is that simple, “he said. “A lot of people have changed the way they think about work over the past year. They have more options now. And so, I think, a lot of people just aren’t ready to put up with some of the same things they did before the pandemic. “

Rishko said some of the pressures employers are feeling now may ease in the fall when schools resume in-person teaching and improved unemployment benefits end.

“We expect there will be a wave, you know, of people going back into the workforce,” he said.

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