Job scene is a workers’ market as reopening beckons

Workers looking for jobs, or a new career, have opportunities this summer in what is currently a hot job market.

Spurred in part by the anticipated reopening after 15 months dealing with pandemic restrictions, restaurants, hotels and event venues that had been shuttered or operating at reduced capacity are looking for workers — and finding it difficult to fill posts.

“Finding workers is a substantial issue across the whole region,” said Mike Steele, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and a 12th District state representative. “Employers are diligently trying to ramp up to pre-pandemic levels.”

It’s especially difficult in Chelan, where reopening from the pandemic and the start of the busy summer season are converging.

“Chelan usually has a slight worker shortage in the summertime. It’s hard to maintain hospitality-related employees anyway. There’s always a higher turnover rate,” he said. “I’ve been telling people that if they want a job in Lake Chelan, they can have one. It’s just a matter of finding people.”

The issue extends beyond the hospitality industry.

“It is a crisis across our communities and across the state,” said Linda Haglund, executive director of the Wenatchee Downtown Association. “I liken it to what they say about the housing market — a buyer’s market or a seller’s market. This right now is an employee’s market rather than an employer’s market. More workers are needed than we have workers applying.”

On the upside, she said, “If you are looking for a career change or want to do a different job, there’s no better time to explore it. Also, for kids seeking summer employment, there’s no better time to ‘test the waters’ and try a job that might be in their desired career path.”

The shortage of workers in Wenatchee prompted a June 23 job fair at the Wenatchee Convention Center organized by the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce and the downtown association in the hopes of connecting employers with employees.

“We are seeing employers requesting space that have never participated in past job fairs we have coordinated. We hope the prospective employees will come learn about the opportunities available to them in our community,” WVCC executive director Shiloh Burgess said a couple weeks before the event.

The job fair drew more than 80 businesses looking for workers, with 72 of those staffing booths. Organizers didn’t have a count of job seekers attending, but were pleased with the turnout. Some businesses interviewed and hired on the spot, Haglund said.

Haglund said she was surprised to see so many types of businesses hunting for workers.

“It’s across all industry sectors,” she said. “Not just entry level jobs.”

Confluence Health and the Chelan County PUD, two of the largest employers in the Valley, are actively recruiting, which isn’t a new development.

“Staffing, especially nurse staffing, has been an issue for as many years as I can remember,” Confluence spokesman Andrew Canning said.

Confluence Health has more than 400 job openings, with about one-third of those for registered nurses and another 20% in the allied health area, which ranges from technicians to medical billers.

“We have more openings at this point compared to before the pandemic,” he said. “The pandemic caused a perfect storm in a sense — we saw some nurses retire, others leave because of the risks the job involved, and others leaving the field because of increasing work shifts and family needs at home. During the height of the pandemic there also seemed to be a hesitancy for people to come to work for a healthcare organization in non-clinical roles.”

The Chelan County PUD is actively recruiting for 17 jobs, most of which are highly technical or specialized to the energy industry.

“We always have a need for qualified workers and we conducted more recruitments in 2020 than in 2019,” said Lorna Klemanski, the PUD’s managing director of human resources. “Retirements and resignations increased significantly in 2020 and so far in 2021 compared to other years. Our turnover rate in 2020 was more than 50% greater than the five previous years.”

Some of that is due to the company’s employee demographics.

“Many of our workers are near or beyond typical retirement age. However, the pandemic caused a lot of people to think about life and their priorities differently, and that probably changed the timing of some retirement plans,” she said. “We have been expecting a ‘silver tsunami’ of retirements for at least a decade. At Chelan PUD, it took the pandemic to trigger the wave.”

One of the worries, Burgess said, is the inability to fill jobs could slow the long-term economic recovery.

“The success of the business community to re-open will be determined by the availability of a workforce,” she said.

“Your core staff provide the continuity to help grow and develop your businesses. They lead, train and often manage your seasonal teams. Essentially businesses need to build talent capacity in order to build operational capacity, and the talent that is foundational to their business is in short supply.”

‘Why is the question’

Express Employment Professionals owner Jay Smith said calling it a shortage of workers might not be accurate.

“From my point of view, the jobs and people are there,” he said.

His company recruits permanent placements and temporary workers across the spectrum, from day laborers and entry level jobs in production, skilled trades and office administration, all the way through C-suite management — CEOs, CFOs, COOs and CIOs.

“On the permanent placements, we can find people. These are typically folks who already have a job and are looking for a change,” he said. “But if we’re talking temporary workers, everyone is having a tough time.”

Express Employment’s recruiters are getting about half the applications on a weekly basis they get in a normal year for entry level, temporary jobs.

“Why is the question,” Smith said.

He points to the increased unemployment benefits that, in some cases, mean workers make more on unemployment than they could at work.

“Until we quit enabling them to stay home, that is not going to let up,” he said. “I don’t think enabling people to stay home and not work is necessary. The market will take care of the market.”

Similar explanations were echoed by Haglund, Burgess and Steele.

“Once the extra unemployment benefits disappear, I would hope that at least there would be some compelling reasons to come back to work,” Steele said.

They note it’s not the only reason for the lack of job seekers.

“Childcare is a driving factor for many employees,” Burgess said. “Additionally, some employees do not want to interface with the public until their children are eligible for the vaccine.”

She said the pandemic accelerated the region’s growing childcare crisis. Parents saw licensed childcare options — especially affordable childcare — dwindle before the pandemic as providers struggled with new training requirements and increased wages. Operating during the pandemic cut into already thin margins with reduced capacity and increased costs, and an unpredictable client base.

“We rely on our working families and our safety net for these families isn’t as strong as we need it to be, which has had a profound impact on our workforce,” she said. “The success of the business community to re-open will be determined by the availability of a workforce, and two driving factors for that availability is enhanced unemployment benefits and a shortage of childcare. The state needs to make progress in these areas if we are going to successfully return to full business operations at a capacity that is sustainable and meets the needs of our customers.”

Smith and Steele said the ongoing housing crisis is another factor in recruiting employees to jobs.

It’s especially difficult in the Chelan area, Steele said.

“People moved into their second homes early in March last year and stayed,” Steele said. “They decided they can work from anywhere, so they put their homes on the market and are buying fulltime in Lake Chelan. That’s pushed the housing prices — so not only are employees in short supply, housing for employees also is scarce.”

Housing prices are up in the Wenatchee area as well. The year-to-date median sales price of housing in the Wenatchee market, which includes Wenatchee, Malaga, East Wenatchee, Orondo and Rock Island, is $420,000, compared to $349,000 last year.

Smith serves on the board at Serve Wenatchee and is an adviser for the Common Trust, which is working to create affordable housing.

“A lot of effort is going on to help with the missing section of affordable housing. That’s not necessarily low income, but middle income. People who are making $40,000 to $60,000 can’t afford a house. That has hurt,” he said. “For the folks who have the means, there are houses out there.”

More housing is on the way, he said.

“Right now the slowdown is in labor and materials,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of development happening.”

Creative recruiting and calming fears

Business owners, who this past year have had to be nimble and flexible, are adapting to the reopening challenges.

“Employers are getting innovative,” Steele said of dealing with Chelan’s housing crunch. “Those with the capacity are looking for ways to house their employees, either by purchasing apartment complexes or building accessory dwelling units so employees can live on the property. They’re trying all number of things to attract people.”

Others are working to keep the employees they have as competition for workers heats up, Burgess said.

On the recruiting front, everything is in play.

“Some are using social media channels, some word of mouth, some signage in windows,” Haglund said.

Burgess sees businesses working harder at communicating who they are, what they have to offer as a company, and why they are a great place to work.

“In addition to telling their stories, businesses are using targeted recruitment, higher entry pay, and incentive pay (bonuses) are also being used in some industries,” she said.

Before the pandemic hit, Confluence Health was using sign-on bonuses for some positions, Canning said.

“We are now offering those on a wider number of positions and also adding some retention bonuses for new hires who stay for X number of years,” he said.

Flex hours and more lenient attendance requirements also are being offered as an enticement, said Smith.

The appeal of the region’s natural beauty and quality of life are high on the Chelan County PUD’s talking points for potential employees, Klemanski said.

“We offer new recruits the incredible appeal of North Central Washington — the four seasons, recreation, good schools and a strong sense of community here. That appeal is stronger now as candidates nationwide re-evaluate what’s important in life. Chelan PUD’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in Chelan County. It is that quality of life that helps make this place such an attractive place for both employers and job candidates,” she said.

As the economy kicks back into gear, Smith anticipates a “righting of the ship.”

“The pent-up demand will catch up to itself. That could affect the demand for labor, where the need won’t be as critical as it is today,” he said. “But maybe not. Manufacturing is coming back to the country again, too, so maybe that won’t change.