Hitting a new low

Staffing in an era of historically low unemployment forcing innovation and training

John Vanderkin and client
VBJ FIle

John Vanderkin wryly chuckles at the thought of discussing staffing in a time of historically low unemployment.

“It’s a new normal,” said the president of Employers Overload, a 72-year-old Northwest-based staffing agency specializing in manufacturing, production, food processing, warehouse, administrative, customer service and accounting placements. “We’ve been working through this for a long time.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September, the unemployment rate declined by two-tenths of a percentage point to 3.5%. Over the month, the number of unemployed persons decreased by 275,000 to 5.8 million. The last time the rate was this low was in December 1969 – nearly 50 years ago. In Washington the rate was 4.6% in September, slightly up from one year ago, and just shy of Clark County’s rate of 4.8%.

“As we’ve seen numbers getting to 4% nationally, we’ve found it’s very difficult finding employees in all categories,” he said, noting a particular difficulty in staffing up for large-run seasonal production work such as food processing.

Calling the coach in

Vanderkin said Employers Overload, which has 18 offices, with three in Southwest Washington, has always been consultative rather than transactional with its clients, but he has noticed more companies reaching out for advice on hiring, retention and employee culture.

“We are having regular conversations (with our clients), talking to them holistically about things like pay, and improving their work environment and culture,” he said.

He told the story of one business that was struggling with turnover, and Employers Overload suggested a slight increase in pay for certain employees, but also helped the company create a more welcoming and inviting space, with room for employee appreciation built into the culture.

“We had built a strong enough relationship to guide them, to coach them, and their turnover decreased by 10 to 15 percent,” said Vanderkin.

Northwest Staffing Resources Vancouver Branch Manager Hailey Mark said now is the time to connect more fully with clients, refining messaging about culture, environment and values.

“Periods of low unemployment create opportunities to strengthen our relationships with hiring managers that we work with,” she said. “In this market, job seekers have their pick of positions. An exciting aspect of our role is to open up a greater dialogue with our clients to ensure that our team has a strong understanding of what sets their company apart from their competition. We work together to ensure a shared understanding of why a prospective employee should join their team.”

Vanderkin guides companies to take a “hard look at their screening,” ensuring that their level of background checks and drug screenings match the positions they are trying to fill. He uses Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor guidance to inform his advice.

Northwest Staffing Resources scrutinizes job descriptions and requirements to ensure companies are casting a wide enough net – and one appropriate to the position.

“The more we can understand about what soft and hard skills are necessary to their role, the more opportunity we have to discuss how those requirements can be met in other ways,” she said. “Job descriptions and requirements are no longer enough to find the best candidate for the job. In many cases, job descriptions have not been looked at in several years and what once rang true as necessary has become obsolete. As the applicant market shifts, it is increasingly important to re-evaluate what it takes to succeed in a position with a company.”

Beyond warm bodies

Employers Overload has nimbly adjusted its recruitment methods, ramping up social media usage, reaching literally into the community. The company recently purchased and outfitted two vans to be mobile recruiting offices. “We go where potential employees are – transit stations, job fairs, and we throw an awning out. We could talk to someone in the van, and have them at the job site in two hours,” Vanderkin said.

Employers Overload is also on the leading edge of evolving automation in the workplace, partnering with Cobot Team (cobotteam.com), a Portland-based distributor for Rethink Robotics, GmbH, a pioneer in the field of collaborative robots. Rethink Robotics helps manufacturers of all sizes automate more tasks on the factory floor.

Speaking from an East Coast conference on robot safety, Vanderkin said EO is introducing some companies to the concept of collaborative robots on the floor. He said cobots “take care of tasks that employees don’t want to do, where there is high turnover and no reasonable wage for it.”

Taking the time to train

At a traditional staffing company, the primary customer is the business seeking qualified applicants. At Vancouver-based nonprofit Partners in Careers, the customer is the job seeker – particularly those with significant barriers to entering the marketplace such as criminal records, gaps in employment and housing instability.

PIC Executive Director Sharon Pesut said fewer qualified applicants are in the pool right now, and the applicants available have more barriers than usual.

“If they could fog a mirror right now, they could get a job. We just don’t have enough people to get good representation for (companies) to interview. We don’t have a lot of people to pick from.”

PIC is funded through county, state and federal dollars, largely based on the number of placements made. The organization is working from its operational reserve funds to train and prepare available candidates for the workforce. Pesut said PIC is seeking ways to make shorter-length certifications programs more available.

“When unemployment is low, funding is low because the need appears to diminish. But the amount of work and support applicants need increases,” said Pesut. “How do we help people in a good environment, if they are not building their skills when we have a bump.”

For his part, Vanderkin said he is “seeing companies being willing to spend more time on training.” For certain jobs, coming into the position with hard skills isn’t as crucial as coming in with soft skills and a willingness to train. “We hire internal people as well, and we have to look for certain skills. But we have brought on a number of people internally, and we just needed to see a great attitude, some great references, good motivation and great customer service – and then we train them.”

Mark sees an opportunity in today’s marketplace to collaborate on training and skill building.

“Low unemployment rates do not have to be a worrisome thought that keeps hiring managers up at night. Some in the shrinking labor pool are part of a category of the workforce who represent a skills gap. Business leaders and staffing professionals in our community have an opportunity to lead a campaign for training and re-skilling of this group of workers. With the right partnerships and a little patience, periods of low unemployment can prove to be rewarding challenges.”

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