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Staffing Struggles: Success Stories Give A Clue Into What’s Happening


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It’s hard to go anywhere without hearing about how employers are struggling to hire. Unemployment in Colorado is at 5.9 percent, down from 6.2 percent over the summer but still up from it’s 2.5 percent pre-pandemic rate in September of 2019. Meanwhile, quit rates, which measure employee resignations, are at some of their highest levels since the Bureau of Labor and Statistics began tracking them.

Is this truly the great resignation? Or, is it more of a great recalibration where employees are reconsidering how they want to work? If the second is true, employers that want to counter it may need to rethink how they add meaning to their own missions, improve their work environments, and boost their employees’ experience.

Photo: Anthony Fomin, Unsplash

A Closer Look At What’s Happening

Theories about what’s happening in the hiring markets abound. One of the most popular says that there aren’t enough workers for open positions. In an August 2021 report published by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, researchers Francisco Renna and Patrick Coate support this as they show that labor force participation was below pre-pandemic levels by nearly two percentage points with “3 million fewer Americans in the labor force today than before the pandemic.”

The researchers further share that declines are larger for women than for men, and for younger and older workers than for those who are aged 25-54. The pair backed up their findings with data from the U.S. Census Current Population Survey and the CDC which showed women stayed home to care for family and that plenty of older workers requested retirement if they were eligible.

At the same time, employment candidates appear to be available. The unemployment rates, while lower than mid-pandemic levels (a fact that would partially be accounted for by lower labor force participation rates), aren’t as low as they were pre-COVID-19.

Some people remain on the job hunt as evidenced both by unemployment numbers and, anecdotally, by a jobs-oriented group on Facebook that has more than 2,500 members. It also has regular listings for jobs including healthcare providers, truck drivers, retail employees, clerical, data entry, and customer service agents that go unfilled. We called a few, and the jobs appear to be as advertised. Most work listed paid between $17 and $20 an hour.

A second theory proposes that there’s an issue with employees simply not being paid enough. Researchers Renna and Coate demonstrated some wage growth in the restaurant, service, and hospitality industries. They showed the hourly wages in these industries were still registered in the survey as below $20 an hour, similar to some of the jobs posted on the local Facebook group.

“… labor force participation was below pre-pandemic levels by nearly two percentage points with ‘3 million fewer Americans in the labor force today than before the pandemic.’”

It’s possible, however, that despite raises, the increases just don’t go far enough. For example, the National Restaurant Association reported that even with increases, as of the end of September, U.S. eating and drinking establishments were down nearly 900,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels and 78 percent of restaurants surveyed by the Association report not having enough employees to support customer demand.

Closely connected to those findings is another theory that says employees aren’t applying for work because they feel they’re better off continuing to stay home and receive upgraded unemployment benefits. If this is the case, and experts differ on that fact, it won’t continue much longer as the $300 a week enhanced unemployment benefits ended September 4th.

A fourth theory says that since staying at home during the pandemic, employees are unwilling to return to high-stress jobs with irregular hours, a lack of respect, and little meaning. Some even say that workers realize their training qualifies them for less stressful jobs in other industries.

Findings from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics support this theory, showing that the Leisure and Hospitality sector, which produces its fair share of stressful, third-shift jobs, is seeing the highest quit rates of industries measured. Statistics also show a correlation between more highly paid and respected employment, and lower quit rates.

One final theory focuses on the changing nature of work and claims that there are skills gaps for employees that make it harder for them to land the jobs they’re applying for. In their research, Renna and Coate note a survey commissioned by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute which states that 46 percent of employers had trouble filling roles because they couldn’t find the right talent. Could available retraining be part of the answer, not just for manufacturing but for other industries, too? It’s possible.

Lisa Balcom, co-owner of the Farow restaurant in Niwot, which opened this past September. Photo by Farow Restaurant.

One Restaurant’s Hiring Success Story Might Offer Clues

The restaurant and hospitality industry is doing everything it can to overcome its hiring woes. Some of them are having to decrease service days, reduce hours, limit how they serve customers, and expand who they will consider hiring.

One restaurant’s success story, however, wasn’t so bad.

“Recruiting for staff was a little nerve-wracking at first,” said Lisa Balcom, co-owner of Farow, a restaurant that opened in Niwot in early September 2021, with her husband who is a chef. “I’d heard that it was hard to find people. But, though it trickled in slowly (we started mid-July) by the end of August we had a full staff though we’re just open dinners only (sic).”

While the hiring process went well, Balcom said it wasn’t without challenges. “Finding line cooks has been absolutely the hardest part. But overall, because we had such a clear mission and vision articulated, it was easier than expected. It helped us attract the right people, the kind of people we wanted to build this culture with in the first place.”

Balcom also talked about how she’s working to keep promises of providing a better culture for her team. “A lot of places grind it really hard. I’m trying to see if we can be different than other restaurants that feel like they have to grind really hard all the time. There are some things that are inherent in a restaurant business. I can’t really change that. But I can try to give a better quality of life, better balance.”

Balcom also said that a different opening process was part of her commitment to supporting a better restaurant culture. Although it was tempting to make as much money as possible early on, Farow opened slowly, allowing time for staff to get used to the menu and preventing everyone from being overwhelmed. This kind of balance wasn’t just good for staff, it was good for the customer experience.

“… because we had such a clear mission and vision… It helped us attract the right people…”

Although Farow put out its welcome mat during the pandemic, the Balcoms did some other things for their staff such as replacing tipping with a flat service fee on each check. As a result, the hourly staff is paid $13 an hour, plus each person gets a portion of the service fee. It comes out to between $20 and 30 an hour. Managers are paid fairly and aren’t worked excessively either; they’re cut off at a strict 50 hours a week.

“We’re trying really hard to own up to what we promise everyone,” Balcom said.

Other Industries Considering How To Address The Stress

Outside of restaurants, other industries – including warehouse and construction, health care, customer service jobs, and the education sector – are also affected by hiring challenges. They’re looking for solutions, including pay raises and increasing their hiring publicity.

Onin Staffing, headquartered in Birmingham, AL, with offices in Northglenn and Fort Collins, is feeling the stress as they seek workers for a range of job types including customer service, assembling and manufacturing, food processing, healthcare & medical services, and the hospitality industries. They recruit regularly in Boulder County, and recently posted as part of the Longmont jobs Facebook group.

Shane Minor, Director of Marketing, shared that the company was staffing people in 27 states and seeing a variety of experiences. “We’re seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly on a regular basis. The difference really comes down to, ‘can we show value to the workforce for this position? That’s a complex question that each employer has to figure out on its (sic) own.”

When asked to describe a time when he’s seen that done successfully, he shared that, “one thing in the light industrial world is that we’re working with everything from entry-level to high-level skilled positions. But one thing that everyone needs regardless of where they are on the trajectory is access to the right tools that they need to navigate life, and home, and work and family.”

Shane Minor, Director of Marketing for Onin Staffing

Minor talked about how Onin places a large focus on providing benefits. “We provide a radically comprehensive range of benefits including $5 prescription benefits and free access to telemedicine and teletherapy. With those things, our employees can balance their life and work needs. We’re also helping them with things like legal services, 401K, life insurance. They have to be able to get the help they need to plan.”

Minor continued his thought, describing what he called a push/pull between employees who want a wage and employers who need a workforce. He said he’s noticed that when you provide benefits, those conversations stop. “You need these things to help stabilize people or else, when they try to keep their life stable, they struggle. Instead, you have to meet them where they are, meet their needs. If an employer doesn’t provide them access to affordable and usable benefits, then another $1 to $2 an hour isn’t going to give them stability, much less help them plan for their future.”

Minor also felt that while these changes are now being seen and felt, he believes that they’ve been building for a while. “COVID-19 has certainly disrupted our world. It shook it up. But more than that, it revealed something that was already in place. That stable job people had last week was something they got let go of all of a sudden. That changed how people perceived their place at work and got them thinking about what they wanted.”

Minor said that his organization makes every effort to pay attention to the culture their employees work in. They call their staff teammates rather than temps. And they look to work for staffing businesses that are supporting their employees.

“Some businesses see employees as a commodity. Others respect them and pay attention to an employee’s strengths, goals, and larger needs regardless of the role that they’re playing for that employer. The businesses in the first category are going to have to change if they want to continue, and it won’t be easy for them. The businesses in the second category are the ones we want to work with.”

Malia Harvey. Photo by Malia Harvey.

The Reality: Aligning Work With What Employees Want Out of Life

As you look at stories of people who have accepted jobs, one thing stands out: they reflect the need to align work vision with what they want out of life.

Katherine Penalver graduated from university last December but couldn’t find a job in her industry right away. “It’s hard,“ she said. “A lot of entry-level positions require two years of experience and for someone to have their clearance. I didn’t have that yet.”

While she was waiting to find a position, she looked towards working as a server at Broomfield’s Hickory and Ash. “I was used to the hospitality industry and I thought it would be the best option until I could find a job.”

It was close to where she lived, convenient, and she appreciated the food. “It was a quick commute and everyone just felt really welcoming. I also knew I could be honest about how much I enjoyed the food there. I knew it would be a good place to work.”

Unfortunately, her time to leave may come sooner than she would have liked. She’s received a job offer from a new Colorado Springs company as a technology development and integration engineer. It’s a job with a professional-level salary and full benefits.  Her new role starts a few weeks after I talked to her, and when it did, she planned to continue to commute for as long as her lease continues.

Since signing on, Penalver says she loves working there. “I will be, honestly, really sad to leave. I wanted to be there a few months, at least. I’ll work at Hickory and Ash when I can.”

Before recently becoming a substitute teacher, Malia Harvey has been staying home with her son and running a childcare business from home for the last several years. Now as her son enters third grade and everyone isn’t at home due to the pandemic, she’s realized it’s time to expand her work experience by becoming a substitute teacher.

She said she wanted to do this job, partially, because she knew there was a substitute teacher shortage and wanted to add to her family’s income. “I’ve always been able to connect with kids so I can use that skill. I’ll also still work and financially support my family, but with a flexible schedule that works for them.”

I talked to her the weekend before her first day on the job. “I’m excited to work with the kids and in a small way, help them to have a better day. That’s all I want. To help kids be happy and not have a stressful day.” She also wants to support the front office. “At the school I’m at, the principal is having to step in and teach for a day because they don’t have substitutes.”

Despite her excitement for the position, when asked if she was considering this as the first step on a longer-term path, Harvey said she wasn’t sure. “I’m just taking it day by day.”

Photo: Michael Browning, Unsplash

Going Forward

In speaking with both employers and candidates, one thing stands out: the situation is still evolving. Many employees are determining what they want the rest of their lives to look like, and the small businesses, restaurants, and other employers are still figuring out how to respond and how to survive. On top of it all are the impacts of mask mandates on work environments, and a fear that increased wages and better working conditions will only last as long as employers are struggling to find staff.

It’s been easy for everyone to become critical. Said Minor, “A lot of the people who are critical about others taking jobs are often the ones who are there every day doing more work than ever before because they don’t have enough help. They are stressed, they are tired, and they are burning out. Their health is suffering because they don’t have the time to really take care of themselves. I think everybody, everywhere is just at this stressful point. Coiled like a spring.”

That also means that as consumers and community members, we need to show patience. If a restaurant is short-staffed, support servers, be patient, and tip them well. Patience may also be needed for longer hold lines on customer service phone calls, slower drive-through lines, and bigger lines at registers.

This isn’t a simple issue and it won’t be figured out overnight. We can all do our part to help those who are trying to do their best.


Are you an employee who has gone to work? Or a business that has had some success in hiring? If so, share your story. We want to hear about it on our Facebook and Twitter pages or through an email.

Tell us what worked to build the employee team you wanted. Or tell us what you were looking for as an employee that your employer ultimately met. This information may be as valuable as anything else in helping businesses determine how to move ahead and when it gets shared with the community we all learn what can be done to move forward.

Author

Deborah Cameron
Deb brings a passion for community journalism and for the local food scene. She started out as an intern and over the years grew into our current Cuisine Editor. She has appeared in multiple publications including the Longmont Leader, The Left Hand Valley Courier, Ms. Mayhem, Finance101, and Ask.com. When not writing she's eating, road tripping, dog-parking, or watching high school softball. She moved to Colorado from Seattle in the early 2000s after spending a year traveling the U.S. in a teal Ford Escort hatchback. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, and a rescue dog named Charlie.

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