(Independent Photo/Karen Mead-Elford)
According to information released in May from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO), Michigan currently has more than 530,000 professional trades job openings in “high-demand, high-wage industries.” May is Professional Trades month, but trades represent just one sector of a large-scale, complex job market that also includes everything from agriculture, construction, retail, financial, real estate, education and more. The state-level economy can be viewed in Shiawassee County under microeconomics – with numerous factors and effects playing into county businesses needing to fill the local labor market. Shiawassee County employers – in most economic sectors – are struggling to both fill job positions and to keep current employees on staff.
The need to fill local jobs is actually a pre-pandemic issue, though the pandemic is definitely a factor in looking at the labor market in 2021.
In a recent discussion with Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership (SEDP) President/CEO Justin Horvath, he shared his insight on the job issue. Horvath has been with SEDP for 19 years and is passionate about the county economy. Throughout the pandemic, he has been an enormous proponent and supporter of business at all levels, assisting small, medium and large business owners in all of the ins-and-outs of business operations through COVID-19.
SEDP offers an online jobs search board. Horvath said that as of the last week of April, the SEDP jobs search board included at least 1,000 job openings for the area. He believes this is unprecedented.
“As with everything, it’s a complex problem with multiple factors involved,” Horvath said. “We can’t lose sight that we had a pre-pandemic job shortage, though there were not as many openings at that time. Still, there were several hundred, particularly in industrial skilled trades. Those areas already had some challenges. And there are a lot of reasons for that, too. We aren’t bringing enough younger people into skilled trades. This is already an issue we were facing. The pandemic has exacerbated this.”
Horvath said some issues faced by local industry include scheduling inflexibility due to shift operations. Scheduling inflexibility is also a factor in manufacturing and construction because these sectors operate under shift demands. Add a pandemic to the problem and these sectors are confronted with trying to draw in employees who are now often struggling with at-home children, lack of childcare resources/options, schooling complications, potential health risks and/or scares and other demands.
Transportation has been a related factor for a long time. Not all employees can meet scheduling inflexibility based on a lack of easily accessible and affordable transportation while often trying to care for children at home.
Transportation is often an issue for employees looking for jobs in all sectors, right now. The cost to purchase, maintain and insure a vehicle is prohibitive for many. Even just trying to get a drivers license can be difficult for some, particularly those faced with homelessness or individuals disenfranchised from familial support, birth records and such.
Horvath said he encourages all business sectors to “Get creative. This has become a war for talent. Businesses are competing over each other for these folks and they have to find ways to set themselves apart. The reality is, we are a smaller community with a great business base with lots of jobs and not enough people.”
Shiawassee County also has a housing shortage. “One of the barriers in attracting employees into the county is housing development,” offered Horvath. He has been working with all levels of the county to meet an onslaught of housing needs, which is a win-win for everyone to have employees live in the county where they work, based on tax capture. Horvath is excited for a couple of upcoming housing projects, but knows the county needs more.
Along with transportation, affordable childcare is another factor in the labor market. Shiawassee County is also facing a shortage of childcare options. “We live in a time when so many parents are working multiple jobs, both parents are working, single parents are working. Now, with the pandemic, there are situations when one parent had to quit work or can’t take a job so they can be home with kids,” Horvath said.
Regarding the federal stimulus, Horvath offered he has seen “some disincentive due to the stimulus. It is a factor, just one factor. Some employers will state that the stimulus is the first problem, but pay scale plays into this. Companies paying a fair hiring wage will have less trouble. They need to offer fair pay and benefits. Younger people today have different goals and aspirations, too. It doesn’t always match up with what companies are doing. Younger people are often looking to work for socially responsible companies. It’s important to them.”
Horvath also thinks there are differences in “perception” between employers and employees. Some employers might be frustrated with a perceived lack of job interest from younger people, not fully understanding there are likely issues related to school, scheduling and transportation that are barriers.
“Part of the problem, too, is that kids need to be made aware of career opportunities,” he said, recognizing some kids are interested in “that full college experience” while others might be more interested in on-the-job training opportunities.
EmergeSkilled is a new platform recently introduced by SEDP and the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce to match employers with skilled students. Understanding that not all career paths require a college degree, EmergeSkilled links employers to high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) students, trade schools and other avenues. More information on EmgergeSkilled can be found at emergeskilled.com.
“These companies we work with are starting to focus more on pay. Businesses need to invest in their workers,” said Horvath. “It means pay, benefits, childcare, social responsibility … if they want to be the employer of choice. With an elevated wage structure, hopefully it will make our companies better positioned moving past the pandemic.”
“I think our story at SEDP, is how do we support those employers to do more investing in these people?” he said. “We want to help them position themselves in a better way. I’m happy to see these businesses being more engaged. Really, good things are happening. In the long run, we will all be better for all of it.”
For more on SEDP, visit sedp.org. The SEDP Jobs Board is available on the website.