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Grassroots solutions #2 – Who says there’s a worker shortage?

June 18, 2016

This week’s solution concerns the mismatch between people looking for work and businesses looking for people.

To set the stage a bit, this is set in a northeastern city of just under 130,000 that is an economic hub for many smaller cities and towns. Hit hard by both the recession and political agendas, it formerly relied on natural resources, agriculture and mining for the majority of its economic activity.

In the past five years millions upon millions of state and Federal tax dollars have been used to lure high tech and green industries to the area and provide funding to increase the college graduation rate.

Ever since 2008, the area has had unemployment that as of December 2014 hovered stubbornly as much as 3.5% above the national average.

Businesses that were lured to the area had begun to move away, in many instances citing lack of a qualified work force.

At the same time, families getting government assistance increased by over 225%.

Two common narratives with employers today are that there aren’t enough workers with advanced computer skills or other STEM-related experience to fill the jobs of the 21st century and that people don’t want to do menial labor jobs.

On the other side of fence are the so-called hard core or chronically unemployed.

One volunteer group decided that there had to be a way to get the two together.

First they formed a task force to test whether the perceptions of the employers were correct.

They found that yes, employers weren’t getting near as many applications that fit the descriptions of the job openings as they needed.

When they asked applicants why they hadn’t applied to specific jobs, the answers were revealing.

The top reason cited was that the employer put up too many roadblocks, convincing the prospective employees that they had no chance at the job before they even tried to apply.

For instance, one employer needing a back-up receptionist required that all applications be picked up and returned at their office (which was a considerable distance from the main population center), applicants had to have a bachelors degree, and the hours were sporadic.

The employer felt that by requiring two in-person visits, it would give them a more committed employee pool.

Applicants noted that they were paying a babysitter, spending money on what at that time was $4 a gallon gas to drive a good distance twice just to apply, and the employer was offering $8.50 an hour for less than 20 hours a week. As one person put it, “I didn’t go to college to work part-time for fast-food wages.”

It isn’t hard to see why the employer only got three applications, and one of those was disqualified because she had no degree, although she had over ten years experience doing exactly what the employer needed and lived in the same town as the employer.

In another instance, the employer had combined two part-time positions with vastly disparate job descriptions into one 40-hour a week job, but was unable to find a single person who could handle all of the requirements of both jobs.

Another was looking for someone who could step right in and perform at the same level as the 25-year employee who was being replaced, after just one week of training.

After spending four months gathering information, the task force published its findings and offered to conduct workshops to help get employers and applicants on the same page.

Among the solutions they offered were realistic assessments of what employers really needed, suggestions that the employers set up task-specific on-the-job training at their own expense (to eliminate the government red tape that always accompanies such things) and ways to better define and communicate their needs so that people were encouraged to apply.

Although the initial response was tepid, this all-volunteer group was eventually able to reach out to about a dozen employers and match them with applicants. Word-of-mouth eventually allowed them to assist over 50 more employers and place a total of 98 people in jobs in just 6 months.

Mind you, there was a state-run employment office in this town, and numerous private staffing agencies.

What was missing was a sincere desire to identify and solve the problem instead of falling back on clichés and stereotypes to explain why people that needed and wanted a job weren’t being hired.

The employer in the first example above could not justify why the position required a bachelors degree, and eventually hired the woman whose application they had summarily dismissed.  They report being “very pleased” with her and just recently raised her wages to $10. She no longer needs supplemental food assistance.

One of the solar industry employers has set up an apprentice program pairing new hires with skilled employees, and has “graduated” 18 skilled workers.  They report that they are no longer considering leaving the area.

Oh yes. Not one red cent of government funding was used to create a single job.

Do you have a non-government based solution to a local problem? Drop me a line and tell me about it. You might be an inspiration to others.

From → op-ed

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