Upstate firms struggle with unusually tight labor market

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Machinist Thomas Blackwell on the line at the BorgWarner plant in Seneca. Photo by Will Crooks

Human Technologies Inc., a Greenville-based staffing agency, is constantly on the hunt for assembly-line workers to serve its manufacturing clients.

Toward that end, it has placed “help wanted” ads in a range of media — newspapers, radio, social media, movie theaters, and billboards along Interstates 85 and 385.

But it had never flown a banner over downtown Greenville, that is until July 4th.

In a marketing technique usually seen only at the beach for all-you-can-eat fried shrimp or $1 beers, Human Technologies hired a Florida company called Airsign to soar over Main Street in a Piper Cub carrying a 135-foot-long banner. The message in seven-foot-tall lettering to thousands awaiting fireworks below: “Great manufacturing jobs. HTIjobs.com”

Anna Rowe Messick, marketing manager at Human Technologies, said the firm is “just trying to find people any way we can.”

Employers across the Upstate are wracking their brains for new ways to recruit the workers they need in an unusually tight labor market. Human resources managers and staffing agency executives with decades of experience say they’ve never seen it so hard to fill certain jobs.

Multiple industries are reporting difficulty in finding suitable candidates for a range of common occupations necessary to make the economy turn — from retail cashiers to forklift drivers and utility linemen.

South Carolina’s unemployment rate has been falling for 7.5 years. In June, it reached 4 percent for the first time since December 2000 — almost a half percentage point below the national rate.

Rates were even lower in the state’s booming metro areas — 3.7 percent in Greenville County, 3.6 percent in Lexington County, and 3.5 percent in Charleston County.

“In a word, in boldface, markets are about as tight as they get in the stronger economic regions,” said Bruce Yandle, professor of economics emeritus at Clemson University and a longtime expert on the state economy.

Upward pressure on wages

As they search for labor, employers are pulling out all the stops, casting their marketing nets wider, teaming with schools, offering referral and signing bonuses.

When nothing else worked, some have raised wages.

In March, MAU Workforce Solutions, an Augusta, Ga.-based staffing agency with Upstate offices, gave its employees at BMW Manufacturing Co. in Greer a raise of $1.20 an hour.

Their pay went from $15.30 an hour on the day shift and $16.30 for night work to $16.50 in the day and $17.50 at night.

“You have to increase your wages in order to stay competitive and attract the top talent,” said Jared Mogan, MAU’s regional operations manager in Greenville.

But even that doesn’t appear to be enough.

MAU needs even more workers at BMW and is dangling a $2,000 signing bonus to try and lure them.

The staffing agency, whose clients also include Milliken & Co., General Electric, and Michelin North America, has 200 job openings around the Upstate, Mogan said.

Cheryl Szczesniak, executive vice president of human resources for the Spinx Co., the Greenville-based convenience store chain, said it raised wages for cashiers last year from $8 an hour to $8.50 and is now hiring them at $9 an hour.

“We knew it was coming, and it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

Over the five years from 2012 to 2016, the average weekly wage in Greenville County rose 9 percent, to $888, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

In the retail trade, the county’s average weekly wage rose 10 percent over the same period, to $564, and 10 percent in manufacturing, to $1,189.

Reasons why

Firms cite various reasons for the situation.

Some say younger people are choosing not to replace retiring Baby Boomers in traditional blue-collar occupations such as welders or maintenance technicians at a factory.

Firms also say there’s simply a lot of jobs available in the Upstate right now, thanks to years of steady economic growth and South Carolina’s success in industrial recruiting.

BMW alone has announced 1,800 jobs at its Greer complex since the spring of 2014.

“We’ve just been blessed with a lot of new jobs, and really good jobs,” said Ed Parris, president of Phillips Staffing, a Greenville-based staffing agency.

Constraint on growth?

Anecdotal evidence suggests the labor shortage may be holding back economic growth.

Van Swafford, president of Swafford Transport and Warehouse, a small trucking company in Greer, estimated his firm could be doing 15 percent more business if it could find enough drivers.

Swafford said some of his drivers have been lured away by competitors “painting a pie in the sky” and promising “more money, more miles, more home time.”

“There’s so many trucking companies out here looking for drivers,” he said. “They’re making all kinds of promises. We don’t make a promise we can’t keep.”

Michael Dey, chief executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Greenville, said contractors are taking longer to build homes and having to delay starts because they can’t find enough workers with the right skills.

The labor shortage has become homebuilders’ “No. 1 issue by far,” he said.

“It’s really having a significant impact on the industry’s ability to produce, and it’s starting to throttle the capacity of the industry in this area,” Dey said.

Seller’s market

Julie Godshall Brown, president of Godshall Professional Recruiting and Staffing, a Greenville-based staffing agency, said employers need to adjust their hiring approaches to match the realities of today’s seller’s market.

Some employers, she said, have not yet realized, “Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Godshall said some employers are responding to current market conditions by putting attractive job applicants on their payrolls immediately, instead of following the “temp to perm” pattern they would have used in the past.

“They don’t want to take the chance of losing that person,” she said.

One thing employers should consider, according to Godshall, is compressing their hiring processes, screening candidates and making decisions within days instead of weeks.

Otherwise, they may find their best candidates have already accepted rival offers, she said.

Most job seekers today are not unemployed, Godshall said, but already working and looking for a better job.

“They’re not going to leave for a job that pays the same thing as they have,” she said.

Godshall also said employers today need to sell job seekers on their companies as much as job seekers need to sell themselves.

In addition, she said, employers should consider accepting job applicants that meet most of their qualifications, rather than insisting they meet all of them to the letter.

Godshall said she’s never seen the labor market more favorable to job seekers during 24 years in the staffing business.

“The client has to be competitive on the offer, has to move much more quickly,” she said.

 

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