Job agency sees shortage of job seekers for available jobs

According to one experienced staffing industry expert, Grays Harbor County is experiencing a substantial gap between the supply and demand in the local job market, but it might not be the type of gap one would expect in an economy limited by pandemic-induced shutdowns.

“We are at one of the largest supply-demand gaps for talent I have ever seen,” said Reid Bates, Owner of Express Employment and Healthcare Professionals in both Aberdeen and Olympia. “And I’ve been around awhile.”

According to Bates, the staffing industry often provides “a good snapshot” of the strength of the employment market in a given area, including Grays Harbor County. In early August, Express Employment had requests from employers for over 200 long-term and short-term positions at their Aberdeen office, far outpacing the supply of available workers applying through the agency.

As of Sept. 9, only 24 of those positions remained open, however, Bates stated that employers are contacting his office with “new jobs arriving every day.”

“Simply put, we have a supply-demand imbalance reflecting an employee-short market,” Bates said.

That should be good news for those fearing the ramifications of an economy hampered by COVID lock-downs and subsequent re-opening mandates limiting businesses.

Bates said the trend in Grays Harbor County mirrors nationwide data released in early October by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, which stated an increase of 661,000 non-farm payroll employment jobs and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.9%, beating most estimates for the third straight month.

“We have over 20 0penings at the moment we are trying to fill,” Bates said on Tuesday. “At this time of year, traditionally entering the fourth quarter, things tend to slow down a bit. … They go a little quieter in the fall, but (the job market) is still quite strong and has been since the beginning of the summer.”

Several key factors are contributing to the unusual gap, according to Bates. One being the supplemental unemployment benefits distributed by the federal government over the summer.

“This extra money was a great help and support to individuals and families and the flow of those extra dollars has really helped our Harbor economy,” Bates said before considering the unintended consequences. “But like everything, there are two sides to this coin and it comes in the form of less incentive to work at a time when employers are scrambling to fill job vacancies.

“We saw a slight uptick in job-seeking activity in August after the extra $600 benefit expired at the end of July,” Bates said. “But the amount of candidates to interview is much less than a year ago. … The numbers of interviews that we conduct on a daily basis is half of where it needs to be and we are scrambling to get good, qualified candidates who can, will and want to work.”

Express Employment interviewed 95 job-seekers in August, which is down 30% compared to the same four-week period in 2019 and the numbers of interviews they are conducting is approximately 15-25 per week.

A second factor of great impact on the local market is the issue of child care and parents having to stay home due to public schools moving to a remote-learning online model.

“(Child care) has been a growing barrier to eligible workers for some time now but today it is at crisis levels,” Bates said. “This problem is compounded today by parents stepping out of the workforce to do the important work at home of keeping their student-children on task with their remote-learning school work.”

Another hurdle Bates references is the risk of many higher-risk employees refraining from re-entering a market where the coronavirus is still a threat.

“COVID-19 is still a real threat and that is enough to sideline many who are vulnerable or are caring for vulnerable members in our community,” he said.

On a positive note, with higher demand, comes higher wages, and Bates said employers are responding to the difficulties of finding potential employees by raising the wages of jobs across the board.

“As I look at our open job orders list, it spans the spectrum. We have a couple of jobs that are at minimum wage but most everything else is well above that and jobs that were previously at minimum wage are now at $15 an hour in order to attract candidates,” Bates said. “(Companies) are competing for a fixed amount of candidates right now and the other alternatives are paying higher rates, they agreed to raise the pay rates and that is helping, but across the board … there is not any area that is feeling a bit of a pinch right now for qualified candidates.”

The startling revelation that employers are finding it troubling to fill available living-wage positions during an economy thrust into a downturn due to a pandemic is not lost on Bates’ clients.

“It’s been a surprise to a lot of people we talk with that there is this much demand, especially when they see statistics that show the highest unemployment levels in several years, it kind of goes against the statistics to say there is a candidate shortage,” he said. “The common refrain is we just are not seeing traffic for job-seekers you would expect at this employment level and with this kind of demand.”