Job market still not working: Employers struggle to find help as job seekers face barriers to rejoin workforce

  • Alivia Robinson of Amherst talks with Lacey Woodrum of ServiceNet at a recent job fair at the Hampshire Mall. There have been many job fairs throughout the Valley as companies compete to fill an array of positions. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Yomar Hernandez, left, the diversity recruiting consultant at UMass, Claudia Pazmany, the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and Lauren O’Boyle, a talent acquisition specialist at UMass, talk during a job fair at the Hampshire Mall Wednesday, Sept. 22. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cristian Lopez, the district supervisor at McDonalds, sits behind a “Now Hiring” sign during a job fair at the Hampshire Mall in mid-September. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A job fair at the Hampshire Mall in September was sparsely attended. Employers report having difficulty finding candidates for vacant positions. Some labor experts think that might change now that pandemic-related assistance has stopped. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tina Vega, who discovered the job fair at the Hampshire Mall while shopping, said she anticipates looking for a job later this fall. She thinks “there are so many jobs out there but not enough people willing to stick it out.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Yomar Hernandez, left, a diversity recruiting consultant at UMass, Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and Lauren O’Boyle, a talent acquisition specialist at UMass, talk during the sparsely attended Hampshire Mall job fair on Sept. 22. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alivia Robinson, and Nick Rivera, both of Amherst, talk with Tyler Etue, the leasing manager at Amherst Innovative Living during a job fair during the Hampshire Mall job fair in September. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Many companies are advertising their job openings with signs such as this one outside the Coca-Cola plant in the Northampton Industrial Park. This is one of many signs on display in the park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs at the Northampton Industrial Park advertise employment opportunities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs at the Northampton Industrial Park advertise employment opportunities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • On Main Street in downtown Northampton, Patisserie Lenox and Amonouz Cafe have posted signs looking for employees. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs at the Northampton Industrial Park advertise employment opportunities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs at the Northampton Industrial Park advertise employment opportunities. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • On Main Street in downtown Northampton, Patisserie Lenox and Amonouz Cafe have posted signs looking for employees. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/2/2021 7:01:13 AM

In all the time since Joe Deng opened LimeRed Teahouse in 2011, he’s never had an issue hiring employees — until this year.

Between Amherst, Northampton and Boston, Deng owns three LimeRed locations in addition to Honeycrisp Chicken, a fried chicken eatery in downtown Amherst.

“Back in the day we had our pick for people,” Deng recalled. Nowadays, he said, “we basically have staff shortages across the board.”

This has forced the restauratuer to make some tough decisions. LimeRed in Northampton is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, while Honeycrisp closes on Tuesdays. Deng also said that twice in September he closed his Northampton location on Wednesday, pulling its staff to work at Amherst for the day just to keep it operational.

Deng also made the difficult choice to reduce the hours that his businesses stay open. “I already work seven days a week,” he said. “I can’t work any harder.”

Deng is not alone. From food service to child care, banking and property management, long with many more industries, businesses across the economy are seeking to fill positions and stave off pandemic-related labor shortages.

“There are many jobs available across all industry sectors,” said Teri Anderson, the executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center. She cites the need for workers in manufacturing and health and human services in particular.

Anderson pointed to JobQuest, which indicated that there were more than 250,000 jobs available in Massachusetts as of last week. Using preliminary data, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that roughly 185,000 people were unemployed statewide in August, pointing to a surplus in jobs despite the state’s 5% unemployment rate.

Labor experts say many factors are contributing to this disconnect — a skills gap, concerns about returning to work because of the pandemic, child care, transportation and more.

Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute, said that “available labor is not matching the skills employers are looking for.”

Along with other factors such as pandemic-related worries about returning to work, Melnik said this has caused the state labor force participation rate to drop almost a full percentage point from 66.6% in January 2020 compared to last August, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. He said a shrinking labor supply “puts the economy on hold” and makes growth difficult.

Job fairs

Since pandemic unemployment assistance ended on Sept. 4, Anderson predicts that employers might now have better luck connecting with a larger pool of job seekers.

One such example of this effort by employers was a recent “Get Hired Job Fair” hosted at the Hampshire Mall in Hadley last week. The event featured more than a dozen employers, including Greenfield Savings Bank, Amherst Innovative Living and JCPenney.

Despite this congregation of businesses, Timothy Tero, a job seeker in his 50s, noted that relatively few people actually showed up looking for work. Tero said he started searching for work over a month ago, in anticipation of his pandemic unemployment assistance ending in early September.

“I can’t remember all the jobs I’ve applied to,” he said, recounting trouble matching his skill set to current openings. Before COVID-19 hit, Tero worked at ePosterBoards, an electronic poster board and event management company.

“I think it’s a little harder than I thought it would be,” he said of his hunt for a job. Tero said he thinks the news media makes it sound too easy to find a job when compared to his own struggle.

He also noted that “some of us are competing with students” for part-time jobs in the Pioneer Valley.

Alivia Robinson, another attendee at the job fair, shared this sentiment. “I feel like there’s always a good range of jobs, aside from when the college kids are here,” she said.

Tina Vega, a recent University of Western Florida graduate, stumbled across the event while running an errand at Hampshire Mall. She said it was a happy coincidence, as she anticipates looking for a job later this fall.

Vega said she thinks “there are so many jobs out there but not enough people willing to stick it out.”

She explained that it seems as though many people are currently scrambling to find a “quick job” instead of the “right job.” This, she said, is hurting employers because it leads to increased turnover for positions that need filling.

Child care struggle

Additionally, Vega suggested that child care is an issue for people who would like to return to the workforce but can’t afford it. She said her sister has a 1-year-old child and is “working a day care job specifically to bring her child to work.”

Clare Higgins, the executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley, said child care shortages are serving as an overarching barrier for people trying to return to work. Recently, “child care centers have closed and ... staffing has been a challenge” because workers are “woefully underpaid,” she said.

“We’re at the bottom of the hill because we can’t hire teachers,” she said. She said that simply raising wages will turn away parents due to higher fees for the service. Child care “contributes to economic growth ... but it can’t be paid for by the people that need it most,” she said.

Higgins said this will continue to be an issue “unless we see child care as a public good.”

She referenced a September report by the Department of the Treasury that detailed the current administration’s proposals to expand the supply of child care on a federal level. The proposals include universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a federal requirement for paid leave, and encouraging employers to build on-site care facilities.

On the state level, Higgins mentioned the Common Start Coalition, an organization dedicated to making child care more affordable and accessible through legislation.

Transportation — or lack of it — is another hurdle that’s keeping some people in western Massachusetts from accepting work.

“We don’t have the population density to support advanced public transit,” Higgins said.

COVID-19 impact

Another barrier to getting jobs is COVID-19 itself, according to Shandra Richardson, the senior operations officer of Greenfield Savings Bank.

“I think the health aspect is a big part of it,” said Richardson, who was at the Hampshire Mall job fair.

She said the positions she is having the most trouble filling are those that require face-to-face contact with customers. “Any role in the service industry has a struggle” when it comes to hiring in-person employees, she said.

Deng echoed this sentiment, suggesting that fewer people are looking for food service work because of COVID-19. Deng said he knows other businesses feel the same way, as he recalled getting dinner at Five Guys recently and finding an invitation to apply along with his meal.

Anderson said job fairs are “a good way to connect with employers,” but stressed that job seekers should use online resources as well. She mentioned that MassHire hosts monthly online job fairs that allow employers to interact with and interview potential employees. MassHire’s next virtual fair will be on Wednesday, Oct. 6.

Alex Laguerra Sierra, the director of property management for Amherst Innovative Living, pointed to a silver lining in pandemic-related unemployment.

“COVID has posed a challenge but exposed us to new talent,” she said. After being laid off from dead-end jobs, she’s found that “people are exploring other avenues and changing careers” after the pandemic gave them such an opportunity.

Supporting her claim, Sierra said that many resumes she’s recently received have come from former servers, hostesses and hospitality workers looking for a job that promises higher pay.

Melnik, from the Donahue Institute, said economists thought last May that the labor market would keep “humming along,” but “there’s more question marks now with the way the (delta) variant popped up.”

He suggested that the unpredictability over more variants down the line will hurt markets, because “one thing markets enjoy is certainty.”

Deng said he’s hiring at rates well above minimum wage to entice the limited applicant pool to work for him instead of competitors. Without more help, Deng is stuck operating on reduced days and reduced hours.

“I’m not sure if there’s a solution anywhere in sight,” he said.




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