By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ
COOKEVILLE – As the economy rebounds from COVID-19 closures, many Cookeville and Upper Cumberland businesses are struggling to find employees to fill vital positions. Employers and employment agencies have had to get creative in recruiting methods and are still falling short on finding workers for this incredible number of vacant jobs.
Even the American Job Center, the state of Tennessee’s regional workforce services office, is struggling to find workers for local companies. On May 5 a virtual job fair was held with a focus on the manufacturing industry. Fourteen employers participated ready to interview and hire workers on the spot. There were 41 job seekers that pre-registered for the event, but only six – less than 15% – actually participated.
The UCBJ recently spoke with several local companies about the current job market and their challenges finding workers. All expressed that since COVID and the related increase in unemployment benefits they had really struggled finding and keeping employees.
“The process of retaining employees is extremely difficult. We have hired our entire headcount for 2021 almost 1.5 times in 2020. Headcount sits right now at about 703 employees. So, you can imagine the hardship,” said Alicia Banner, site human resources manager at Ficosa. “The candidate pool has dwindled from what we originally worked with in 2016 when we transferred our business from Crossville to Cookeville. We rehire candidates that are eligible, but that pool is diminishing also.”
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Manufacturing isn’t the only industry that is struggling to fill positions.
“We are offering large sign-on bonuses with little success in hiring staff. We have been in a staffing crisis for almost a year and rehiring has been an issue for us,” said Pacesetters Executive Director Beverly Matthews. She said that they had utilized various means to reach job seekers, including advertising on all social media sites, using newspapers, billboards, flyers and word of mouth.
The number of jobs available is almost “unlimited” according to an official at Academy Sports Distribution Center. Numbers vary – Ficosa currently needs 100 more workers and Flowserve needs nine, but almost every manufacturing facility in the area is in need of new employees and is offering higher pay to attract them.
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Most manufacturing facilities prefer that applicants have some experience, but many are willing to train the right applicant.
“We need 100 workers immediately,” said Banner. “We need team members who are experienced in a manufacturing setting or who are quick learners and work especially well with hand and eye coordination. All of our parts are handed to the next station, so team members stand for long periods of time.”
Alejandra Cisneros-Conohan, human resources business partner for Flowserve, said their business needs people to fill positions ranging from skilled electrical maintenance mechanics to administrative assistants and sales support representatives. “There’s basically something for everyone,” she offered.
Pacesetters has 34 positions they are trying to fill. Their only requirements are that applicants be 18 years old, have a high school diploma, a valid driver’s license and can pass a criminal background check.
“We provide all of the training once the person is hired,” said Matthews. “The only special skill we are looking for is people who have the desire to help others and support people with disabilities to be a part of their community. If we have people interested in this work and want to do this work, we can teach the rest.”
Although business is back to 2019 levels or even exceeding those levels in manufacturing, health care agencies like Pacesetters are struggling to bounce back because they don’t have the workers to meet the demand for their services.
“Based on what we have seen in the past several months, the lack of applicants appears to be the issue versus the type of employee. Very few folks seem to be interested in employment at this time,” shared Matthews.
The problem according to both manufacturers and the service industries goes back to workers not wanting to return to the workforce and instead preferring to continue receiving inflated government unemployment benefits as a result of COVID.
“Now we face so many different things. We see that candidates do not want to work; we see that the government is paying more for unemployment than what a manufacturing team member can make in one week here at Ficosa,” said Banner. “Stimulus checks are not helping our cause. When we do find employees that want to work, the team members leave because we have so many new team members that our training is not as robust as it used to be. Our leaders are tired – they are tired of training, always welcoming new people and dealing with the huge turnover that we have been experiencing.”
Many businesses are just trying to find the workers to get them by until the workforce situation improves. They are hopeful but being realistic in their expectations, and they are being honest with themselves that attracting workers may never be as easy again as it was before COVID.
Banner said, “I see this as somewhat long term, if the government stops the stimulus and the excess unemployment — our hardships may only be short term. However, after the pandemic, we have to approach the team members motivations in a different way. We have to set ourselves apart from the rest. We have to attract the talent and be the best in the market to offset this situation.”
Matthews agreed, “I am hopeful that, in time, we see people return to seeking employment. However, this does not seem to be improving at this time.”