Companies struggle to hire, retain workforce
BY MARA KNAUB SUN STAFF WRITER
Alberta Newspaper Group
UNDENIABLY, THE COVID-19 pandemic has caused challenges for local businesses. Among them are staff shortages, supply issues and inflation, which have led companies to raise their wages and prices. Mr. G’s Drive-In briefly closed its dining room in January due to a staff shortage. The popular Yuma restaurant asked customers to instead use the drive-thru or order online. “We appreciate your support and patience during this time,” Mr. G’s posted on social media. Also in January, Somerton eatery 85350 Sports & Pizzaria posted that “due to higher food prices and wages, we are forced to raise our prices on our menu.” The Historic Coronado Motor Hotel for weeks has unsuccessfully tried to hire a front desk clerk, posting the job on hiring websites but not getting qualified candidates. Owner Yvonne Peach has also struggled to hire servers for the Yuma Landing Bar and Grill. Unable to hire and retain enough staff, Isaiah “Tio Gordo” Lopez was forced to shut down Birrieria El Gordo in the Foothills. “It’s so difficult. This is what kept us from expanding and staying in the Foothills,” he said. Now Lopez and partner Abraham Andrade, owner of Rolls and Bowls, are in the midst of opening a food court in a shared space in the Big Curve Shopping Center, where Birrieria El Gordo is located. The two eateries recently held job fairs in an attempt to hire the staff needed to run the new concept. “The turnout was great,” Lopez said. “We had plenty of applicants.” However, they ran into the same problem that other employers are facing. “Very few people showed up to their second interview and even less than that were we able to hire.” Two years into the pandemic, many companies are still struggling with staffing challenges. Restaurants and the hospitality industries, such as hotels, were among the hardest hit when it came time to find enough staff to reopen. “From the start of the pandemic, unemployment incentives were very attractive to become unemployed,” Patrick Goetz, operations director of Arizona@Work Yuma County. “In many cases, they were making more money on unemployment than actually working. We would go to places like chamber meetings, and the employers would say, ‘Hey, where are all these people we need?’” Arizona@Work in Yuma County, which works to connect employers and job seekers, has witnessed the situation firsthand. The agency helps businesses find, train and keep employees, at no cost to the company. It offers customized recruitment services, employee development programs and business support resources. In time, businesses reopened and the government reduced unemployment benefits, causing more people to look for jobs. “But still there’s a very, very large amount of people who are unemployed by choice,” Goetz said. He pointed to an article in USA Today that reported that nationwide almost two jobs are available for every unemployed person and 4.4 million Americans have quit the workforce. “Where they’re making money, we don’t know, but they’re not working,” Goetz said. Goetz and his colleagues at Arizona@Work also noticed another shift. “We found employees are becoming more picky as far as who they want to work for, as a result employers are boosting their wages,” Goetz said. Nowadays, to attract quality workers, companies need to offer “good wages, good benefits, a good company culture for them to come to, room for advancement, and recognition is very important as well,” he noted. “The days of the employer just looking for a warm body, those days are over,” he added. People are looking for health benefits and other perks such as 401K plans and savings programs. The agency has been busy holding recruitment events for companies in search of workers, and agency representatives have become pretty good at guessing how many job seekers will show up for an event. If the company has good wages and benefits, the recruitment event will typically have a good turnout, drawing about 100 people. Goetz quipped that if direct deposit is the only benefit a company offers, not a lot of people will show up, maybe four or five. Mariana Martinez, employer engagement coordinator at Arizona@Work, has noticed another trend. Job seekers want meaningful work, one that makes them feel like they are making a difference. “There’s a new generation coming into the workforce, (and they’re asking) ‘How am I helping my community?” Martinez noted. Company culture is important to these workers. They’re not necessarily looking for camaraderie but room for growth and career development. This doesn’t necessarily mean promotions, but training. They are asking: “What is the company going to do so I can better do my job?” “The individual needs to feel comfortable where they’re at,” Goetz explained. “If the employer can make that person feel comfortable in the position and provide training and assistance, it makes it that much better for retention.” Martinez pointed out that hiring workers isn’t the only problem for companies. Hanging on to workers is also proving to be a challenge. “We have employers who have said, ‘We go through the hiring, interview, offer positions, and retaining right now is the big issue,” she said. “People have options now. If there’s an opportunity to make more money, they will jump on that,” Martinez noted. As a consequence, she added, “employers are getting competitive.” In the past, Goetz noted, restaurant servers earned about $2 an hour plus tips. Today, some restaurants are paying their servers $14-15 an hour plus tips. The jobless report in February, the latest at the time of this writing, indicated that the unemployment rate in Arizona was 3.6% and in Yuma County it was 12%, about three times the state average. But, Goetz and Martinez noted, there are plenty of jobs out there. The jobs most consistently in demand in Yuma County are in accommodations and food service, especially in the winter when seasonal visitors arrive and “they all want to eat out,” Goetz said. Right now, the workers most in demand in Yuma County are drivers with commercial licenses and heavy tractor trailer drivers. “It makes sense because of all the logistics issues we’re having at the ports and the slowdowns,” Goetz said. Other in-demand local jobs include licensed practical nurses and aircraft mechanics, perhaps with the civilian contractors that work at Yuma Proving Ground, as well as healthcare, social assistance, manufacturing, transportation warehousing and construction. “The opportunities are out there. We need to get our job seekers by showcasing those employment opportunities, what their needs are and identify where they want to work,” Martinez said. This is also the time when the jobless numbers start increasing as agriculture seasonal layoffs take place. As a result, many out-of-town and out-of-state companies, from as far away as Alaska and Pennsylvania, look to Yuma County to provide them with workers. “Keeps her very, very busy. That’s a good thing,” Goetz said of Martinez. Goetz also noted that a lot of companies have become “very, very interested” in moving to Yuma County due to the available labor force and the lower cost of doing business. For instance, leasing a warehouse in San Diego costs three or four times what it would in Yuma County, “and we’re not that far away.” Local economic developers are marketing Yuma as a western hub. “If you take a look at where we are at, we’re 2½ hours from San Diego, five hours from Los Angeles, 4½ from Las Vegas, a couple of hours from Tucson and Phoenix,” Goetz said, noting that central operations in Yuma allow for quick distribution to major cities. BUSINESS RESOURCES Arizona@Work helps business in various ways. To help businesses fill positions, the agency will post vacancies in the system and distribute them through email. The jobs are also posted on the Career Center Job Boards at several sites and social media, including Facebook, where the Yuma County agency has 9,382 followers. Arizona@Work also offers other business support resources, such as labor market insight, tax credits and incentives and rapid response services in case of layoffs and emergencies. Labor market insights can help a company make sense of the changing labor landscape with data that includes industry trends and occupational outlook surveys, labor law compliance updates and employment insurance information. Tax credit incentives are available to Arizona companies that hire targeted employee groups or provide specialties training and services, such as hiring veterans and the disabled or operating within an Enterprise Zone. Arizona@Work offers employee development programs, including the Work Experiences internship program, commonly called WEXs. The agency covers the intern’s salary for up to 15 weeks, with funds from the U.S. Department of Labor. The program enables workers to gain work experience, occupational skills and exposure to the working world. It also helps participants acquire the personal attributes, knowledge and skills needed to obtain a job and advance in employment. The program provides participants with the opportunities for career exploration and skill development. Employers can also take advantage of the on-the-job training program, with the agency partially paying for the worker’s salary. The overall objective for these programs is for participants to obtain new skills and work experience. Businesses wishing more information may contact Moises Pimentel, business services consultant, at mpimentel@ ypic.com or 928-329-0990 ext. 7711. HELP FINDING A JOB Arizona@Work also helps job seekers. They can view available jobs on social media, by email or at three Yuma locations: One Stop Career Center, 3826 W. 16th St., 928-329-0990; Yuma Youth Career Center, 300 S. 13th Ave., 928-783-9347; and Arizona@Work-DES, 1800 E. Palo Verde St., 928-247-8740. The agency can refer qualified job seekers for a vacancy. Applicants are pre-screened by Arizona@Work. While a job referral indicates the job seeker has the agency’s “stamp of approval,” the job seeker must still apply for the position. Arizona@Work offers a career readiness program that equips them with the basic skills that employers value. The agency notes that that goal is to remove barriers that are keeping job seekers on the sidelines and give them a realistic path to the workforce. On the other hand, by looking at applicants with an Arizona Career Readiness Credential, employers are able to better connect to qualified candidates who are well-prepared for career success, according to the agency. To earn the credential, a job seeker must take four steps: initial skills review, a career readiness self-directed online course, an employability skills course, either self-directed or as a series of workshops, and proctored assessments. The South County Business Resource Center, located at 1453 N. Main St., Suite 5, in San Luis, Arizona, is available to help both businesses and job seekers. For more information, go to https://arizonaatwork.com/locations/yuma-county or contact Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 928550-6064 Ext. 8111.