The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 05, 2021 1:00 am

To fill jobs, firms turn creative

Not just pay raises but bonuses, tuition help

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Many employers are finding it’s not enough anymore to offer an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Instead, the worker shortage is forcing companies to get creative.

Higher hourly wages, signing bonuses and beefed-up benefits packages are among the perks being dangled in front of prospective employees.

One DeKalb County manufacturer was so desperate for workers this summer that it started offering 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work.

Even so, there are fewer willing workers to be found. The U.S. labor force has lost 7 million to 8 million people during the coronavirus pandemic, a Chicago-based recruiting firm says.

Northeast Indiana was experiencing a worker shortage even before the pandemic hit. Jobless rates were so low throughout 2019 that the region was considered to be at full employment – anything less than 5% unemployment.

And it’s not just smaller companies that are struggling to hire. Major employers that have upped their games include Target, Walmart, Chipotle, Starbucks and CVS.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank last week announced it is increasing its minimum hourly pay by 20% to $18 an hour.

CVS last month increased wages and eliminated education requirements. Also in August, Target unveiled a program that covers tuition costs for associate and undergraduate degrees in 250 degree programs at certain schools and offers up to $10,000 a year toward master’s degrees. Walmart, Chipotle and Starbucks also offer education assistance.

Local employers are competing with all that national chains can offer.

Help wanted

Vera Bradley is experiencing “a little more difficulty” finding qualified workers, said Julie North, the company’s human resources vice president.

“We’re currently focusing on seasonal hiring in both our distribution center and in customer service,” she said in a statement. “We have increased our wages and are offering flexible schedules.”

Vera Bradley is also offering bonuses to employees who refer successful job applicants, North said.

Fort Wayne Community Schools last week still had about 100 openings for bus drivers, classroom assistants and specialty teaching areas including special education, math and science, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said in an email.

The local public school system is offering bus drivers a $2,000 signing bonus, which will be paid in four equal installments over the course of the driver’s first year with FWCS. The shortage is so severe that current FWCS employees can earn a bonus of $1,000 for referring bus drivers.

A retention program offers bus drivers bonuses of up to $2,000 based on satisfactory attendance, performance and safety, Stockman said.

FWCS officials also are trying to lure retired teachers back to the classroom by offering a $2,500 bonus per semester.

Parkview Health is hiring for clinical and nonclinical roles across the region, spokeswoman Tami Brigle said in an email.

The number of Parkview job openings is higher than normal due to health system growth, normal attrition and coronavirus-related care needs, she said. Openings include nursing, medical assistant, housekeeping, food service and lab positions.

“Our hiring incentives include competitive sign-on bonuses, relocation assistance and tuition assistance,” Brigle said. “We also offer a student loan payback program for select clinical roles, and we’ve enhanced our referral bonuses for current co-workers who refer great candidates.”

Factory woes

General Motors is hiring at its Allen County assembly plant.

Jeff Benzing, the plant’s communications manager, said the pandemic has affected the local operation, which employs about 4,400 workers who build Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.

“We do have a steady stream of employees onboarding in multiple positions, but with many companies hiring, attracting workers is a struggle,” he said in an email, adding that the entry-level, temporary part-time positions have been the most challenging to fill and retain.

“Job seekers need to understand these positions are the ones that lead to full-time employment opportunities,” Benzing added.

GM hasn’t resorted to raising negotiated union wages or offering signing bonuses, he said.

Serious worker shortages are being felt across the state’s manufacturing industry, according to Andrew Berger, the Indiana Manufacturers Association’s senior vice president of governmental affairs.

Indiana had the third highest growth in manufacturing hiring nationwide in July with 4,800 new workers, he said through email.

“Despite these new workers, anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 openings are unfilled in Indiana manufacturing companies,” Berger said. “There are openings for most job descriptions, with skilled production workers the hardest to find. These jobs include machinists, to welders, to equipment operators to basic entry level production workers. Specifically, maintenance technicians (those who fix and maintain production equipment) are the hardest to fill.”

Signing bonuses and paid training have become common hiring incentives in the industry, he said.

“Manufacturing companies have always paid well-above-average wages,” Berger said, “and those wages have increased.”

Record applications

Some other major local employers said their reputations are a significant advantage when attracting applicants.

3Rivers Federal Credit Union is a preferred employer, spokeswoman Melissa Shaw said.

“We attribute this to our positive reputation in the community and as a top employer of choice with all we have to offer our team members,” she said in an email.

Carrie Jones, the credit union’s assistant vice president of talent recruitment, agreed.

The Fort Wayne-based cooperative employs about 470 and had about 30 open positions as of last week across 21 branches and two corporate offices.

“We’re not immune to what’s going on,” Jones said of the worker shortage.

But, she said, 3Rivers attracted plenty of job seekers even when unemployment rates were low in 2019.

“When COVID came along, we’re finally seeing what other companies had been seeing for a long time,” she added.

Even now, the credit union receives a robust supply of job applicants, Jones said. As of June 30, it had received 566 internal and external applications this year. Of those, 104 people were hired or promoted.

The biggest challenge, she said, is filling entry-level positions because the 3Rivers’s hiring process takes time. The process includes reference, criminal and credit history checks.

“Our biggest thing is we don’t want to settle. We bring in the best of the best,” Jones said.

The credit union’s starting pay of $13.50 an hour puts it in competition with fast food restaurants and retailers for customer service workers. And few of them have such a stringent hiring process. That puts 3Rivers at a disadvantage with some job seekers.

“If you apply at Taco Bell, you can start working the same day,” she said.

Sweetwater Sound also isn’t struggling to fill jobs, according to Jeff Ostermann, the retailer’s chief people officer.

“Because of our ongoing commitment to creating a great environment for our employees, we’ve found that our job candidates are finding tremendous value in the many perks and benefits we’ve offered for some time,” he said in an emailed statement.

“Those benefits include our free in-house medical clinic for employees and their families, free in-house mental health counselor, free fitness center and personal trainer, free on campus consultations with money management and legal professionals, free employee emergency loan program and our other benefits like comprehensive health care and a 401k plan with a company match continue to help draw job-seekers to be a part of our team.”

“In fact,” Ostermann added, “we’re seeing record levels of applications this year.”

A temporary setback

A Chicago-based recruiting expert believes the tight hiring market won’t continue indefinitely, however.

Andrew Challenger, vice president of recruiting and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., sees the current situation as a temporary setback.

When COVID-19 struck last year, many parents were suddenly forced to stay home with young children who weren’t allowed to attend school or go to daycare. Some workers in low-paying jobs found they made more money collecting enhanced unemployment benefits.

The end result was a smaller pool of people available to work. Challenger thinks they’ll return to the labor force, however, giving employers more hiring options.

“The worker shortage that we’re experiencing right now,” he said, “isn’t something that we expect to last for a very long time.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy getting to that point, especially for restaurants, retailers and hotels. Almost all – 98% – of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association’s hotel members can’t fill open positions, the association said.

“A lot of those in-person jobs are really hard to fill,” Challenger said.

He’s heard of some employers with open positions despite offering signing bonuses up to $3,000.

DeKalb Molded Plastics in Butler was so short-handed this summer that it started offering 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work.

Challenger said he’d never heard of a similar offer. He predicted the offer would be attractive, especially to those who had left the workforce during the pandemic.

“Going back to work full time, 40 hours a week, sounds exhausting,” he said.

What’s more common, Challenger said, is businesses investing in technology that replaces workers. That includes restaurants, including Panera Bread, that have started asking customers to enter orders at a kiosk rather than talking to an employee.

Businesses have to do something to keep their doors open.

“It’s a once-in-a-50-year worker shortage,” Challenger said. “Companies are just (foundering). They can’t find people to come in.”

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