“Help Wanted” signs have become a frequent sight in businesses in the valley.
For months, employers reminded workers they had temporarily laid off after the pandemic began and forced them to shut down or downsize. In May, the number of Americans on temporary layoff fell by an additional 291,000 to 1.8 million – down 90% from the 18 million in April 2020, the Associated Press reported.
Even people who lost their old jobs made progress last month: the number of those people fell from 295,000 in May to 3.2 million. But that’s still up 59% from 2 million in April 2020. Nearly 3.8 million Americans – about 41% of the unemployed – have been out of work for six months or more, the AP reported.
The labor shortage is one of the many shortages plaguing the US economy. Industries such as lumber, meat processing and more have been affected and this is pushing up prices for consumers. A labor shortage slows down every industry, making it one of the most visible in the valley.
Bob Garrett, CEO and chairman of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce in Shamokin Dam, said the chamber has started tracking the labor shortage over the past seven years, only to see it escalate for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It just got worse and worse and worse and worse,” Garrett said. “We found in our survey with our last strategic plan (in 2020) that this was the number one issue for our members. We were in the middle of the pandemic and everyone was laid off and not working, but our members struggled to find employees. “
TeaJay Aikey, CEO and chairman of the Central PA Chamber of Commerce in Milton, said the chamber was also aware of the issues.
“The PA Central Chamber started to address this issue that we knew our businesses were facing in July of last year and held our first job fair in March 2021,” she said. . “We have another one this month. We educated employers on other untapped labor pools and the benefits of hiring them. “
Economists note that the economy is in a delicate situation: it is recovering from a devastating crisis almost as quickly as it succumbed to it. In fact, the very speed of the rebound helps explain why employment growth remains modest. Businesses are reopening as quickly as possible to meet pent-up consumer demand to shop, travel, dine out, and attend sporting and other entertainment events. As they face this growing customer demand, they are struggling to find enough workers and supplies as quickly as they need them, according to the Associated Press.
Over the next few months, economists expect the labor shortage – and the supply chain bottlenecks that have contributed to it – to lift and eventually pave the way for growth. more robust in employment, the AP reported.
“This is definitely the toughest job market I have ever seen in my professional career,” said Chad Geise, president of Furmano Foods in Northumberland. “It has been difficult to get people and resources to support our operations. We certainly need more. We recruit daily. “
In the low season, Geise said Furmano needed 350 employees; during tomato and green bean season they need 450 of them. Right now they have dozens of openings for skilled operators with living wages and benefits as well as entry-level positions on all of them. shifts, production and the warehouse, Geise said.
There are a lot of people who apply, but many do not show up for interviews and many do not show up on the first day of work, he said.
Furmano Foods has signs across the valley announcing their openings. They held driving interviews, attended local job fairs, encouraged referrals from team members, reached out to high schools. There are also open interviews every Tuesday and Thursday that interested applicants can enter, Geise said.
“There are always a multitude of reasons,” Geise said of the labor shortage. “Unemployment benefits are the main reasons we don’t see the flow of applicants. There are workers who are vulnerable from a health point of view. “
Jim Backes, COO of 16 Burger King locations, including Sunbury, Elysburg and Middleburg, said dining rooms and drive-thru services were busy but continually trying to add staff to each restaurant.
“We’re not getting as many applications as we used to be,” Backes said. “We have increased our hourly rates and increased the rates for our current managers and crew. We have open positions. Our workforce was sufficient before the pandemic. Since the pandemic, we have struggled to staff restaurants efficiently. “
During the pandemic, Backes said they also struggled to keep current employees, including parents who had to stay home with their children when school was canceled or was held virtually.
“With vaccines and the spread of COVID less endemic, we hope more people will return to the workforce,” Backes said. “With the new unemployment requirements, we hope to fill the vacancies with returning people. As the new school year returns and more schools are opened for in-person learning, we believe this will help us attract more people. “
Sunbury Burger King chief executive Michael Whiteknight, who has been employed for 16 years and chief executive for six months, said the hardest part of hiring during the pandemic was receiving applications.
“We’ve opened up our methods to try to recruit people, to receive applications, to let it be known that we’re looking for smiley faces and happy people that we want them to join our team,” Whiteknight said. “We questioned everyone who entered the door, or at least attempted to do so. “
There has been a lack of responses from applicants over the past year, he said.
“I don’t know if people changed their minds overnight,” he said. “Getting people to come for the interview and hope that they actually show up for the job and want to work (is a challenge). “
The fact that the current employees are also working with the new challenges has been difficult to learn about the new flow of operations, he added.
Employers become “ghosts”
Northumberland County Jail Warden Bruce Kovach said the Coal Township facility is consistently short of 10 to 20 correctional officers at any given time. He said he advertised in local newspapers, posted on career websites, posted on the county website, worked with CareerLink and was present at schools and career fairs.
“It’s terrible,” Kovach said. “We’ve always had a little problem with recruiting, but it really affected us during the pandemic. At this point, I’m not sure where to turn.
The problem, he said, is not unique to the county jail. Other correctional facilities have the same problems.
“We get ghosts quite regularly,” Kovach said. “I schedule interviews and they don’t show up. We receive applications electronically. When we leave messages, we don’t get any reminders. We skate our wheels a lot.
In recent years, Kovach has said he will wait until he has a batch of applicants and schedule interviews on the same day. Now, however, he said the interviews were being arranged as quickly as possible so that they could not find jobs elsewhere.
“We are changing our schedules for them,” he said. “It’s something that we discuss here on a daily basis.
Kovach said it is difficult to identify the reason.
“At first when COVID hit and there was a lot of talk about its vicious spread in facilities like ours, I think people were being cautious and staying away from us,” Kovach said. “The ripple effect of the pandemic has resulted in the closure of schools and unemployment benefits and fear combined to put us where we are today, not only with fixes but with business and the industry. “
Jeff Lowry, director of recruiting at Geisinger, said Geisinger has a number of ongoing recruiting efforts.
“As a healthcare system, we employ a wide variety of clinical and non-clinical workers, so the shortage of workers varies with the recruiting effort, but they do exist,” Lowry said. “The problem existed before the pandemic, but not to this degree. Geisinger is a growing healthcare organization and recruiting is an important part of it. We compete with companies both inside and outside health care at the national and local levels. The communities we serve also have unemployment rates, which has had an impact on the number of workers available. “
Lowry said they’ve been creative in offering login bonus programs for hard-to-fill or high-priority positions.
“We also offer bonuses to our own employees if a candidate they have referred is hired by Geisinger,” Lowry said. “In addition, we continue to provide excellent employee benefits from day one of employment. “
The Associated Press contributed to this report.