Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 9, 2021

Advantage workers in post-COVID power shift

Employers struggle to find employees in abnormal normal

In normal times, a high unemployment rate would mean that those offering jobs would be swamped with qualified candidates. But this is the post-COVID economy, and the old rules don’t seem to apply.

In Tennessee, as across the United States, the state and local economies are reopening, and businesses are hiring. Some of them, particularly food service and hospitality providers, are facing significant headwinds in staffing back up.

Some of that, especially in the state’s urban areas, harkens back to a labor shortage in the months leading up to the March 2020 shutdowns. It’s also now due to the fact that some of those workers, having had some time to consider their options, want jobs with higher pay and better benefits.

It’s something of a power shift in Tennessee and the rest of the country as employers and prospects evaluate each other across a unique post-pandemic jobs landscape.

And it’s a larger issue than just finding servers or front-desk personnel. Other industry sectors, such as construction and logistics, also are having to beef up their focus on safety and wellness while raising salaries to attract and retain today’s workforce.

That’s a challenge and an opportunity, says Marty Gibbs, vice president and general manager of Knoxville operations for The Christman Company, which has 485 employees, including 77 in Knoxville, in nine offices across five states. It also relies on a steady, in-person workforce.

“It’s hard to drive nails through a Zoom call, and we had to keep projects moving forward,” Gibbs says. “We have multiple offices and worksites, and that created a set of unique challenges during a time when we were all facing a lot of fear and anxiety. We began having a morning huddle, every day including weekends and, over time, paring that back to a weekly meeting.

“We also created a dedicated team which created and implemented some safety protocols, including a daily screening for anyone entering our offices or project sites, and translated the screening questions into a bilingual form that could be accessed via a QR code. That gave us a way to track what was going on in all our locations.”

Keeping infection rates down and staff on-site was vital for the business to continue. Those initial safeguards allowed the company to keep moving on most of its job sites, and now it has turned to dealing with supply chain and staffing issues as communities reopen. For personnel, that’s meant a more visible marketing effort in new channels.

“The challenge has gone from bad to worse in terms of recruiting and labor availability, and that’s everywhere,” Gibbs says. “Now couple that with pent-up demand. We rely on subcontractor partners from the electrical grades to plumbing, masonry and drywall professionals, as well as our own staff for carpentry, interior demolition, and other elements of a construction project. So, we have used our internal marketing team to come up with creative ways to market our jobs through social media and other outlets.

“Of course, we still go to job fairs, and have our number and contact information posted on our large job sites, but right now we have to use every opportunity available to us to bring on people.”

‘A perfect storm’

The hospitality industry – from travel and tourism to restaurant and retail – was an early canary in the coal mine for the labor shortage. When communities reopened, people wanted to shop and dine out as soon as possible, and their favorite restaurants were either closed or open at vastly reduced hours while they tried to bring on staff.

The situation wasn’t as dire for major multipurpose retailers such as Pilot Company, but it too has had to step up its recruiting game to attract and retain talent in an always-challenging sector, says Ashley Geyer Jones, senior director, talent, for the company.

“We were declared an essential business, and so in some ways we feel as though we never slowed down,” Jones says. “So, in many ways, what we’ve been in is our annual summertime staff-up period, and this summer that is more essential than ever. That means we need to get people on board.”

Pilot, which has 65 travel centers across Tennessee and earlier this spring had more than 200 open positions in those, as well as many slots to fill for everything from fuel drivers to corporate positions, held its annual National Hiring Day event April 27 in a bid to fill more than 5,000 positions, from retail and food service to drivers, as quickly as possible to surge toward a goal of 10,000 new staff.

To sweeten its appeal, Pilot’s benefits package offers what most applicants demand, including access to health care insurance, tuition assistance, a 401(k) program, paid parental leave, wellness programs, professional development and more.

Pilot’s recruiting team mirrors what others in the retail/convenience space are seeing: More job postings, fewer job applicants. It’s what Jones calls “a perfect storm” in terms of the uptick in demand and lack of people engaging.

“Two summers ago, it was hard to find people because there are a lot of options out there,” she says. “We spend a lot of time talking about the many options of working at Pilot, such as our training and development programs. You can come as you are, and we’ll provide it all. We point out that more than 70% of our leadership have come from internal promotions, because we are seeing and hearing that people don’t want a job, they want to grow a career.”

Pilot also is assessing who it’s competing with for all talent, be it an hourly store worker or a corporate data scientist and engineer. That type of analytics deep dive will likely continue because it should yield a better way to market toward the more preferred candidate pools.

“We want to hit our hiring goals and provide a safe environment for staff and our customers,” Jones says. “So, while that is first and foremost, we’ll be looking back at our hiring in terms of attrition, which is always a struggle, and how our benefits and culture are helping to retain staff.”

Talent has demands

Employers are getting support from chambers of commerce, who are eyeing trends and working to bridge local needs with regional and state assistance. For them, it’s about eyeing current trends and trying to predict where the needs are now and will be in the coming weeks and months.

“The data I see is positive in terms of a lot of industries opening back up, and it’s also showing that talent is a crucial need right now,” says Miles Huff, senior director, talent initiatives, for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. “Certainly, in tourism and hospitality, but also manufacturing, health care, building, construction – they all had needs before COVID, so it’s not very surprising.”

In addition to offering higher pay and a richer slate of benefits, employers are also going to need to address the current lack of community-based child care options and other post-pandemic realities to staff up, Huff adds.

“There are a lot of issues that are keeping people from looking for work,” he says. We didn’t have enough child care before, and now there’s even less,” he says. “Working parents already had challenges.

“Wages are going to need to go up, and that will affect business operations. Employers are also going to have to look at being more flexible, such as offering smaller and shorter shifts and some nontraditional hours, to compete.”

Even so, he says, employers in the Chattanooga market are engaging with potential talent to see what the demands are, and he views that as a hopeful sign.

“We have all learned a lot, from the type of jobs we want to the type of jobs we offer,” Huff says. “If we can create the talent opportunities now, as well as a robust pipeline for talent to keep building toward the future, we’ll be in good shape.

“If something like COVID happens again, then we’ll have those connections made and be able to engage much more quickly with people who have been furloughed, or who have not had opportunities, to see what they need in terms of skills.

“That’s why we are working with higher education partners, workforce education providers and anyone else in the education and talent development community. We want to make sure we are offering opportunities for people to get into a career and achieve upward mobility.’’

Pay more, invest more

Before the pandemic, some elements of what a crisis could look like were found in the state’s restaurant sector. The battle for talent there was fierce, and it was spawning many unique approaches to getting and keeping people in an industry known for transient talent who could, and often did, get a better job down the street.

In a post-lockdown world, with available workers even more scarce, creativity will be needed, says Rita McDonald, vice president of member and investor relations at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We are excited about reopening and pleased to see that our restaurants are being very cautious and safe,” McDonald explains. “They were hit pretty hard, and even though they want to move full speed ahead they also are facing some realities. What we are seeing is that creativity to reopen with distancing, to continue to offer curbside and delivery, and to market to potential employees in a way that really stands out.”

Turnover is an evergreen problem in the restaurant world, and that likely won’t change any time soon. Still, McDonald says, owners are becoming much more invested in keeping the people they spend training time and dollars on, and that will be a good shift for the industry.

“They are looking at their budgets and seeing what they were paying someone in a certain position before the pandemic,” she says. “Now they may need to pay more. And if they do, then there’s a bigger investment in that person and that role.

“That means an employer looks at staffing differently, and that will help them grow and thrive. And when they are doing that, it’s great not only for them but for our city and our economy.

“We saw how quickly restaurants totally changed how they operate so they could keep going on the pandemic,” McDonald adds, “and I’m sure they’ll bring that same energy to this challenge.”