Where are the workers?

With a 3.1% unemployment rate in Dane County and Help Wanted signs everywhere, a solid economy can still cause employers grief.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Locally, the economy appears to be clicking on all cylinders. The Dane County unemployment rate in February was 3.1% (2.9% in Madison), and it seems most everyone is either employed, employable, or overemployed. Yet it doesn’t take more than a casual glance to notice all the Help Wanted signs in windows across the region. From grocery to retail to service, everyone seems to be asking the question, “Where are the workers?”

Employment agencies are hopping and scrambling at the same time, forced to be as creative as possible when it comes to finding workers to fill all the requests flooding in from a variety of industries.

“If we’re having trouble finding workers, everyone’s having trouble,” notes Shane Grady, managing recruiter at Drake & Co. in Madison. Years ago, a client would post a job and wage and a client would accept it. Now there are multiple offers. “It’s all supply and demand,” Grady says, “and it’s driving wages up a bit.”

Drake, which typically places office positions, has seen an increase in requests ranging from accounting to construction. Its staff has been digging deeper into their files and reconnecting with people they may have spoken to in the past to see if they might be interested in new opportunities.

“Workers have changed,” Grady says, forcing recruiters to change along with them, and money isn’t always the driving force. “Many recent grads we work with don’t care about the pay. They’re interested in what the company does in the community, how much time off they can get, is the company flexible enough to allow them to take a month off to volunteer around the globe? We’re getting more of that than we did 10 years ago.”

Jason Guggisberg, regional vice president at Adecco Staffing, oversees both Illinois and Wisconsin, but Madison has the lowest unemployment rate in his territory. His company typically places light industrial, customer service, and call center positions. Adecco has hired more internal staff and is spending more on advertising in an effort to find workers.

“We have to be more creative,” Guggisberg says. “We can’t just post jobs on job boards. We posted all of our jobs from this office last week and got about 25 responses, but they may not all be qualified. In 2008 and 2009, about 500 people would have applied. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and through three cycles like this. I don’t consider it concerning, but this is the tightest I’ve seen.”

Meanwhile, at QPS Employment Group, employees and candidates alike can earn referral fees if they find people for jobs and the company encourages other companies to do the same. “We’re going back to people we’ve placed in the past and asking them if they have friends who might be looking for a change,” notes Dawn Bauer, account executive for QPS East and West in Madison.

The Brookfield-based company has 52 branches around the country and offers a $125 referral bonus if a candidate refers another person who gets hired and completes 160 hours of work. If QPS reaches a payout of $100,000 in referral bonuses, it will reward its internal employees, evenly splitting $100,000 among them. Bauer says it is a way to think out of the box and attract what she calls passive candidates. As of this writing, nearly $30,000 in referral bonuses had been paid out.

QPS also rewards its internal employees with an incentive that gives $1,000 to a referring employee and $500 to the new hire after they complete three months of employment.

Employers are sweetening their pots, as well, Bauer notes, increasing time off or providing job flexibility. “The baby boomers are retiring, the Gen-Xers want to keep working, so I can’t see things changing anytime soon. That’s why the passive job seeker is so important,” she explains. “Those are candidates who may never have heard about us or would never otherwise be looking at advertising.

Competing for workers

Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA), says the lack of workers has restaurant owners looking more closely at scheduling, hours, and days of operation. “I’ve heard that some restaurants have postponed their openings because they couldn’t get enough help. Some have shortened hours or may close a day or two a week to take pressure off the workforce.” Owners are used to working a lot of hours, he says, but they also have limits. “You can only force people to work just so hard.”

Demographics aren’t working in their favor, either, with the national birthrate declining through the years. “There just aren’t a lot of people coming up through the pipeline.”

And it’s all happening as the restaurant business, especially in Madison, is booming. “People are eating out more than ever,” Lump says. “Millennials eat out more than any other population. Older people go out to restaurants for socialization. So the value of dining out is there. The economics is there. It’s never been more exciting and the opportunities are there for people who want to work and want careers in the industry.”

Teenagers, who used to be the bread and butter of the industry as they saved for a car, college, or general spending money, are out there but in smaller numbers, he says. “In my opinion, I think schools somewhat discourage the idea of working.
I learned as much working as I did in school in terms of practical experience, but people don’t value work as part of education the way they used to.”

To help fill the well, the WRA has taken a supportive stance on comprehensive immigration reform to allow people with green cards to hold basic jobs. Another problem Lump sees is a system that he believes creates a disincentive to work for individuals receiving benefits through BadgerCare or other government programs because landing a job could require them to surrender those benefits.

“I’m not suggesting people are lazy, but a lot of times they don’t work because they can’t replace the money they’re getting in benefits by going to work.

“There has to be a better way to encourage people to work without immediately losing their government benefits,” Lump states. “It’s not a good trade for many people. There needs to be a bridge of some sort.”

The grocery industry is also impacted by worker shortages, notes Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. “It doesn’t take but a few trips through a grocery store to see the impact of a tight labor market.” There may be just one lane open, he says, and despite an increase in self-checkout lanes, the industry is looking for entry-level workers and people to fill advanced positions. “Most people don’t realize that a grocery store may employ a couple hundred people,” Scholz notes, with most of them having worked their way up the ladder.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

“Some people come out of college and don’t expect to work up a ladder anymore,” Scholz says, which he blames on a cultural change in work ethic. “In the grocery business, we can bring kids in at a younger age and work them into our system but we’re also competing with other brick and mortar stores and with incredibly organized after-school schedules like dance, soccer, gymnastics, or piano lessons. Kids are busy after school.”

Older workers are in the workforce longer and their importance cannot be understated, Scholz says. “They understand how the workplace works and the chain of command, but you still need to bring new faces in. You need that young workforce to keep you current and challenged, especially when it comes to social media.” The biggest challenge, he notes, is not only finding that younger set, but keeping them engaged and interested enough to pursue a career in the industry. Employers, he says, have a responsibility to make work experiences enjoyable, engaging, and rewarding enough to keep people around.

WGA is launching a four-day program called Grocery 101 that will provide select employees a chance to learn about the back side of the industry, from management, leadership, and communications to store cleanliness and appearance, product life cycles, and best practices. “The purpose is to give newer employees a higher overview of the industry and the store and let them see the potential out there,” Scholz says. WGA is also working with Milwaukee Area Technical College to promote a 24-credit retail management certificate.

“The grocery industry offers great opportunities to make money,” Scholz says. “If you show initiative, you won’t stay in an entry-level job for long.”



Belaboring the labor issue

Kevin Hickman, vice president or marketing and business development at JP Cullen, cites statistics to better define the labor shortage in construction. “Right now, the average skilled trade person is in their mid to late 40s,” he says. “And for every one skilled person entering the field, two to three leave through retirement and attrition.” Besides that, only about 6% of students polled look to the construction industry as a viable career choice, he notes. Based on projects in the pipeline, Hickman says JP Cullen needs to increase skilled workers by 18% each year through 2020.

“When we have a lack of skilled labor, we have to be really strategic in terms of which projects we take on. We might have to say no to some things,” Hickman states.

JP Cullen and other contractors proactively engage with middle and high schools and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) instructors to promote careers in the trades. “A lot of parents view construction as unsafe or dirty or unstable,” Hickman notes. “In many cases, it’s the exact opposite.” Another issue, he explains, is that many people don’t understand just how lucrative a construction career can be.

Not everyone is cut out for a four-year college, but for those who are JP Cullen offers $20,000 per year in scholarships to high school students looking to study construction management in hopes they’ll enter the field later as project managers or superintendents. Also, whenever the company works on a K–12 school project around the state, JP Cullen tries to pique the interest of students by including them in the construction process through district STEM curriculum or career and technical-education programs.

Hickman adds that it’s never too late for people simply looking for a career change. “If someone has initiative, is drug-free, and willing to invest time upfront, they can grow extremely quickly in this career.”

Meanwhile, JP Cullen has been able to become more efficient through pre-fab work. The company can prefabricate up to 70% of a building’s components using its own skilled trades people and subcontractors, resulting in an average 10% savings in cost and 25% savings in schedule. “We put a lot of effort into the application of technology to increase efficiencies on projects,” says Hickman, “so we don’t necessarily need fewer workers, but we can free workers up more quickly for other jobs because we are more efficient.”

Taking the big step

A recent J.H. Findorff & Son job fair was organized through a partnership with Project Big Step, a Dane County jobs initiative designed to address the worker shortage, and included trade union representatives seeking qualified candidates for apprenticeships.

The event, held at Madison College’s south campus on Park Street, attracted a diverse group of men and women hoping to land a job and perhaps launch a new career in the commercial construction industry. This is recruitment season, per se, when construction firms beef up their trade lists in anticipation of a busy year, and on this day, about 100 people fill out required paperwork and wait to be interviewed on the spot.

Tahj Stewart hopes to begin a career in commercial construction.

“Turnout today is really awesome,” notes Kilah Engelke, apprenticeship and training coordinator for the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ union, OPCMIA Local 599. “It’s Saturday morning, so people have to be extra motivated to come in and meet the people they need to meet. Hopefully a lot of people will get on the path to where they need to go.” If the day results in just one qualified person interested in pursuing the cement trade, she says, the day will be a success.

OPCMIA helps find cement workers for a variety of contractors, but job fairs such as this occur frequently across the area, particularly when workers are scarce.

Other unions are also on site, such as the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We are here explaining the opportunities to these individuals about the apprenticeship and the opportunities that come along with that,” notes Aaron Zimmerman, business representative for the carpenter’s union. “I think today will go quite well. It’s a day for Findorff to get a list of people interviewed so when they get busy over the summer and we’re not able to fulfill all of their needs, they have a list of possible applicants who could come in and start working for them and bypass all of the paperwork because they’ve already done that part,” he says.

Mark Schneider, Findorff’s general field superintendent, is in charge this day. Findorff, he says, typically holds between three and six such job fairs over the course of a year. He’s fairly optimistic about the morning’s turnout. “We hope to meet some people that we can employ,” he says. “We also believe in giving back to communities that have been good to us. Some people can get interview experience and we can give them insight on getting started in the construction business.”

Schneider is looking for certain attributes. “They need to be able to work and play with others,” he smiles. “They need to be able to show up to work every day, and they need to be willing to work hard because a lot of what we do is physical.”

Unfortunately, those qualifications do not always present themselves.

The need to fill jobs is staggering. More than 1 million construction workers have left the industry nationwide since the recession in 2008, and most have not returned. Yet in 2017, commercial construction is booming, as are apprenticeships, notes Bill Clingan, program director, Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and Project Big Step.

Big Step expanded into Dane County in 2014 after 20-plus successful years in Milwaukee. Its purpose is to connect skilled employees with construction companies ready to hire, particularly during a worker shortage. It especially targets minorities and women wanting to get into the industry, and those who left the industry during the Great Recession in hopes they’ll return.

Hindsight is always 20/20, Clingan says. During the lean recession years, the industry likely didn’t feed new workers into the construction pipeline because jobs were lacking. “Now I think we’re seeing the gap that resulted from not being more proactive.”

Big Step probably took in about 400 people in 2016, Clingan reports. “Of those, 136 got onto trade lists, and 98 in the Madison area started apprenticeships.” There are 17 different trades, he notes, and a statewide registered apprenticeship program also helps train people into the skilled workforce. “You’re earning while you’re learning and getting paid on the job and in the classroom,” he states.

Project Big Step exposes candidates to a number of different trades in hopes of finding one that interests them. “Once they inform us which they’d like to pursue, we inform them about tests required and give them instruction. That’s how they get on trade lists. A candidate must be on a trade list before they can connect with an employer to earn an apprenticeship.

“It’s a great system to get people into skilled crafts, but what we’ve discovered is that many people don’t know a steamfitter from a sheet metal worker, much less what it takes to become one. So we try to be that translator.”

The average age of a starting apprentice is 27.

Project Big Step partners with industry, the community, and Madison College. “The secret sauce is that we’re more likely through community connections to have a more diverse pool of people trying to launch into these careers, including women, who may have never been offered exposure to these trades before,” Clingan says.

High-rise dreams

Tahj Stewart, 24, is one young worker dreaming of a construction career. A residential carpenter for the past three months, he professes a newfound passion for working with his hands. Now he hopes to move into commercial construction.

Stewart is also one of 12 candidates partaking in a four-week training course offered through a partnership between the contractors and the carpenter’s union, notes Clingan. “They don’t get paid anything, but they get training and will hopefully walk out in good standing and into a registered apprenticeship job.”

The hopeful Stewart was interviewed earlier this morning. “I felt it went good,” he says. “My main goal is to get in there as soon as possible, hopefully this summer. I want to work hard and learn as much as I can through an apprenticeship.” He’d also like to work in tall buildings. “I like being physical and the hands-on work, working hard, and getting stuff done, but the end goal is getting a project built and having pride knowing
I built it.”

Clingan slaps him on the shoulder, smiling. “He’s a good one.”

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