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TIGHT LABOR MARKET: Area has 2 jobs for every worker

When Publix holds a jobs fair this weekend, the Florida-based supermarket chain will find that it’s hunting in a sparse field.

The tight labor market is changing the landscape for manufacturing, public employment and health care, with employers having to be more creative and in many cases more generous in the chase for workers. Publix hopes to hire dozens of workers during a job fair from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Mountain Lodge on Upward Road.
“We have a tremendous number of people looking for workers and we don’t have many people,” said Scott Adams, who directs the NC Works Career Center at Blue Ridge Community College. “If you remember back to 2009 and 2010 when everything was not good, here at the NC Works Center in Henderson County, we were averaging about 80 to 90 people a day coming to the Career Center. We are averaging now about 50 a week. That’s an incredible drop in not a whole of time.”
The four-county region made up of Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Madison counties has the lowest unemployment rate of any region across the state, at 2.9 percent (compared to the Rocky Mount Metropolitan Statistical Area, at 5.8 percent, and statewide rate of 3.7 percent). Buncombe has maintained the lowest unemployment rate of any county in the state for 40 consecutive months, and is now at 2.8 percent. Henderson County, at 3.1 percent, is tied for the third lowest rate.
In the past year, employers added 2,700 jobs in the four-county metro region, said Nathan Ramsey, who heads the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.
“There are about twice as many job openings as there are job seekers,” he said. We’re seeing lots of different strategies to help employers meet workforce needs. Certainly wage growth is a part of that. Manufacturing is strong, health care is strong, hospitality, tourism, construction — pretty much all across the board employers are hiring right now. It’s a challenging time for all of us but it’s a good problem to have.”

Asheville nationally known


The overall popularity of the region, manufacturing growth and health care jobs are all contributing to the jobs boom.
“No. 1, I think that the Asheville area having become more nationally recognized both in tourism and people liking the town has affected all of us,” Adams said. “No. 2, we’ve always been a heavy manufacturing county but I think the increase in the Greenville-Spartanburg area in the automotive industry has led to a tremendous number of manufacturers who support that industry moving to this area. That’s where we’re seeing a lot of the jobs. Health care keeps growing, hospitality keeps growing and manufacturing — we’ve seen growth in all those areas.”

Like Publix, manufacturers have been holding job fairs to try to fill positions on the factory floor and other positions.
“Everybody’s looking,” Adams said. “Wilsonart had one last week. There’s a lot of that going on.”
Pardee Hospital announced last week that it was holding a job fair to hire nurses — pitching a sign-on bonus for the hardest-to-hire shifts.
“Nursing positions are always in demand,” Hope Reynolds, vice president for Human Resources at Pardee, said in an email answer to the Lightning’s questions. “Pardee has offered sign-on bonuses for several years now which has helped us tremendously in reducing the number of open RN positions; however, night shift positions continue to be a challenge.”
The hospital has offered sign-on bonus for inpatient nursing positions of $5,000 for a while and recently saw the need to double that, to $10,000, for night-shift RNs.
“We conduct and participate in Job Fairs regularly as they have proven to be very successful for us in selecting many qualified candidates,” Reynolds said. The on-site job fair for nursing is 8-11 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. Aug. 16 at Pardee.
The hardest positions to fill are night shift RNs, certified medical assistants and certified central sterile technicians. The easiest? Customer services representatives, who staff the front desk. “We receive more applications for this position than any other position,” Reynolds said. “In July alone we received 148 applications for CSR.”

County bonuses?

Like Pardee, Henderson County is looking at bonuses to recruit for certain positions. Unlike Pardee, the county’s never offered them before. Administrators brought up the idea during a senior staff meeting, County Manager Steve Wyatt said.
The big challenge now is hiring candidates with basic law enforcement training for some 14 new school resource officer positions.
“We’ve actually had pretty good success with that,” Wyatt said. “It’s a very tight labor market and we’re competing. Usually our jobs require a certificate or a professional licensure,” including those in the health and social services fields, paramedics and law officers.
“You don’t want to be in a place where there’s high unemployment,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for employment in Henderson County and that’s a good thing. It does create challenges because we have to compete and that means money and that makes it more expensive. We negotiate salary more now than we did in the past.”
Hendersonville City Manager John Connet said the city has more openings than it has had in the past and it’s seeing resignations of city workers who have gotten more work in their moonlighting work than they could do part-time.
The county school is system is facing a typical shortage.
“We’ve always had a shortage of bus drivers,” said Scott Rhodes, chief human resources officer for the school system. “Teacher assistants — those haven’t been difficult for us to hire for. We have struggled with before-school and after-school teachers and also our cafeteria staff. … Insurance and benefits that come along with it, a lot of times that’s the draw.
“We don’t have a lot of openings (for teachers). It really just depends on what the subject,” Rhodes added. “This year we had a difficult time filling Spanish classes and other times we’ve had difficulty hiring math teachers. We’ve got a very well respected school system across the state. People want to come work here and they know they’re going to be treated well.”

Companies examine labor market

Instead of assuming the workers will be here when they come, prospective manufacturing prospects are looking at labor first, said Brittany Jones Brady, president of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development.

“It’s definitely changed the world of economic development,” she said of the county’s jobless rate, which economists consider full employment. “It’s becoming more workforce development. We’re seeing projects now that are looking at the area are considering workforce before they look at a site, so we’re doing some pretty deep labor dives before we would really study a site very heavily. Before you could look at your labor pool, companies are looking deeper at your unemployment rate and they’re trying to extract information out of your demographics to determine what the true labor pool is. Which pushes us to focus more on workforce strategies, partnering with the college, looking at transferrable skills, looking at underemployed and underserved populations to determine what our labor pool really is that can fill that pipeline.”

Although the higher unemployment rate in rural Eastern North Carolina may signal a bigger available workforce, Brady says that’s not the only factor manufacturers look at.
“There’s a certainly an attraction to be at areas with a larger population and a higher unemployment rate,” she said. “However, a company that desires to be in our area are going to try to find a way to make it work. We have some favor because we do have workforce strategies.”
Those programs include the Made in Henderson County program, which promotes career opportunities in industry to county high school students and a strong partnership with BRCC. In April, the Partnership, BRCC and NC Works held a job fair aimed at high school seniors and the general public. The fair placed 5 percent of the 285 open positions, which Brady described as a good outcome. “Now that students have graduated we’re seeing more of placements happen,” she said.

The Partnership encourages employers to be as creative and as generous as possible.

“We have seen some unique sign-on bonuses,” she said. “We had one company a few years ago that realized a sign-on bonus wasn’t enticing but a sign-on (bonus) for a new Play Station was. There’s different types of sign-on bonuses deployed. We’ve seen the entry level rise.” One company announced it was going to start entry-level workers at $12 an hour. “Well, Chick-Fil-A is at $12 an hour, too,” she said. “You have to look across sectors and what the value of your employees is. In the long run it’s a cost savings. … You’ve got to get creative now. No one’s sitting on the sidelines waiting for a job.”
The Partnership continues to focus on the county’s 140 existing manufacturers, too, which Brady describes as putting family first.
“When you hit where we are right now (in a booming economy) there’s the argument that you put the brakes on and you don’t recruit but there’s also discussion of a recession in a year or two,” she said. “So we continue to be aggressive and move forward, because the economy’s not going to stay like this. In this economy, we’re doing more of the workforce strategy whereas in 2007 we were doing more of the recruitment strategy.”
Adams, the NC Works director, sees the trend continuing.
“You look at the projections the state has for the growth in this region, people are going to move here,” he said. “This is not going to stay a small place I don’t think.”