PROVIDENCE — It’s difficult to think of a manufacturer in Rhode Island more essential during a pandemic than Bradford Soap Works in West Warwick. In a time of constant reminders to wash our hands, this 145-year-old institution makes soap products for brands around the country.
The company’s having a problem, though: It can’t find enough workers. There are about 26 open positions right now in the 300-person Rhode Island operation, from $15-an-hour gigs to positions that pay $75,000 annually. Bradford usually operates at about 100 percent, but now job postings are going unanswered, and lead times for customers are getting longer. The last applicant on the state job board — where it gets most of its workers — came on March 25. Since then, crickets.
“It’s very difficult to find people today to fill openings,” president and CEO Stuart Benton said.
Bradford is just one business across Rhode Island’s economy that is having trouble. Restaurants have gotten the most attention for labor shortages, but the problem is not exclusive to hospitality. Companies in an array of industries in Rhode Island — manufacturing, health care, transportation, and staffing agencies that hire people across broad sectors — say they’re having trouble attracting workers, even with sign-up bonuses and increased pay.
The unemployment rate in Rhode Island dipped to 7.1 percent in March, down from a pandemic high of 17.4 percent in April 2020 but up from a pre-pandemic low of 3.5 percent. The seasonally adjusted labor force, meanwhile, was down by 20,000 people from March 2020 to March 2021, to around 541,000.
Many Rhode Island companies say there’s now plenty of work to be had.
“There are very good open positions right now,” Brian Leite, director of workforce solutions at the staffing agency Greysmith Companies, said in an interview. “This is the time to find a great job, because there’s a lot less competition for that job, a lot of strong positions open and available. Get out ahead of the pack, rather than wait for the all clear in September and December, because there’s some really strong positions open today.”
In the business world, there’s a broad consensus about what’s driving these trends. Part of it, they say, is people’s fears about coming back into work, especially for in-person jobs, during a pandemic. People also are dealing with family obligations, such as kids who are doing remote learning, that makegetting back into the workforce more challenging.
Then, more controversially, there’s the extra $300 federal boost in people’s unemployment checks, which will last into September. Businesses say they can’t compete with the amount of money people are getting on unemployment.
“With this level of unemployment, we should have a line out the door,” said Wilfred Roth, owner of the Pawtucket-based staffing agency Add Temps. “And our clients should be very fussy about who they’re taking. [But] right now, many of our clients are offering significantly higher paid rates than they had a year ago. Many are offering bonuses to employees who join and then stay for at least one week. When we’re calling people, more often than not, they’re flat out telling you: Why would I take this job if I can make this amount collecting [unemployment]?”
Roth said Add Temps has more than 100 positions to fill right now — mostly in light industrial and manufacturing — and in a good week, it’ll fill five. Pre-pandemic, staff could quickly fill 10 to 20 openings for their clients. The situation, Roth said, threatens to turn a boom of a recovery into a whimper.
Some economists dispute that the $300 unemployment boost is playing a big role.
Edinaldo Tebaldi, a professor of economics at Bryant University in Smithfield, said any effect is small. More broadly, people are concerned about their health or family situations. Then there’s the skills gap, which the pandemic has only widened, Tebaldi said. Teachers, for instance, now have to use Google Classroom or Zoom. Workers in retail and restaurants, too, are dealing with technology in a way they weren’t before.
“That’s a fundamental shift in the skillset to get the job done well,” Tebaldi said.
Whatever the cause, the effect of a labor shortage is definitely here, many businesses say.
“It’s abysmal,” Karl Wadensten, president and CEO of VIBCO, said in an interview. “It’s a wasteland of basically nothing.”
The Wyoming, R.I., company makes pneumatic, hydraulic, and electric vibrators for asphalt, concrete, food, chemical, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture — anything that needs to get shaken when it’s made. It has about 20 unfilled positions. Usually, there will be three or four. That’s for floor jobs and for knowledge workers, Wadensten said.
“Manufacturers have to really rethink the value of their people, and they really have to take it on themselves to train people and raise the bar,” Wadensten said. “We’d better take a participative role.”
In 2018, Banneker Supply Chain Solutions, with locations in North Smithfield and the Quonset business park, set their minimum pay to $15 an hour. Even after creeping pay up and offering bonuses, applicants are “laughing at that,” president and CEO Junior Jabbie said.
Those who do apply sometimes are just ghosting for interviews — not showing up or explaining their absence. It’s a job seeker’s market out there right now, so someone who applies for a job probably has a lot of options, Jabbie said.
“It’s like being on Tinder or Bumble,” Jabbie said. “You can match with someone all day, but if you’ve got all these matches, not everyone is floating up to the top to get a response.”
One thing that’s worked is boosting referral bonuses. Suddenly, everyone’s brother-in-law might be interested once there’s $400 on the table. Banneker even recently put up signs advertising jobs, which included the cell number of an HR person.
“She’s gotten a lot of weird texts,” Jabbie said, “but we’ve had to do some weird things.”