Business & Tech

Hiring sale: Job availability on the rise

Quincy, Ma., 06/13/17, Copeland Package Store owner Dennis Carson sweeps up the side walk in front of his store. Employers struggle to find workers as the unemployment rate hits a 16-year low and the number of job openings rises to the highest level since 2000. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Copeland Package Store owner Dennis Carson swept the sidewalk in front of his store. Employers struggle to find workers as the unemployment rate hits a 16-year low and the number of job openings rises to the highest level since 2000.

Just how tight is the job market? Hollister Staffing is so busy finding workers for employers that the agency is looking to beef up its own staff — and is networking practically around the clock. But so far, Hollister has only managed to hire a handful of the 13-15 recruiters and sales people it needs to add to its 50-person roster this year. This despite the fact that the company has recently added benefits such as mindfulness training and guided meditation led by the CEO, and offers the chance to earn “an unlimited amount of money,” according to Mark Hollister, the company’s executive director of engagement.

“A lot of people have done OK in the last few years and they’re in a good position,” Hollister said. “It is proving to take a lot more than a salary bump to get somebody to move.”

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The number of job openings across the country hit a 16-year high in April, at 6 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statisticis, and “Now Hiring” signs are popping up all over. But with the national unemployment rate at a 16-year low of 4.3 percent, and fewer people switching jobs, hiring has fallen, suggesting that employers haven’t been able to find enough qualified workers to fill their needs.

In Massachusetts, where the unemployment rate is lower than the nation’s and businesses are expanding left and right, the worker shortage is particularly acute — ranging from low-wage home health aides to mid-salary engineers to highly paid surgeons.

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“The evidence is definitely becoming quite clear: We’re darn near if not past full employment in Massachusetts,” said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “We’re running out of employable people.”

At Lids at the South Shore Plaza, manager Nelson Curet recently held an open interview session – part of a nationwide effort by the athletic gear retailer — in the hopes of attracting a full-time and part-time manager, as well as “part-timers, as many as we can get.” One of the big problems with attracting workers are the variable hours, Curet said, which are determined by a software program that creates schedules based on sales from the previous year. Curet is up-front about how widely the hours can vary, telling applicants: “You can have five hours one week and you can have 20 hours the next week. Are you comfortable with that?”

Often, they aren’t — especially when there are so many jobs to choose from.

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Down the hall at The Walking Company shoe store, which has been looking for a store manager for two months, among other open positions, higher-ups have taken to making “cold calls” at other stores in an attempt to hire away workers, according to the store’s assistant manager. A few doors down at Dellaria Salons, a front desk position that was open for six months was recently filled, but the salon is still in need of an assistant and several stylists, said operational manager Jackie Donovan. It’s not that people don’t apply, she said, it’s that many of them don’t want to work hard -- and don’t last.

“It’s tough to find people who care,” said Donovan, who started with the company as a part-time receptionist early last year.

One factor contributing to the worker shortage is the lack of wage growth. Declining unemployment usually leads to higher pay, but average earnings have increased 2.5 percent nationwide over the past year. When inflation is taken into account, the increase was only 0.4 percent.

This tepid growth is not enough to pull people back into the labor force who might be enticed by higher wages, such as stay-at-home moms or discouraged workers who have given up looking for jobs, said Northeastern University economist Alicia Sasser Modestino. The number of people working or actively looking for work, known as the labor force participation rate, has been declining over the past decade and has leveled off in the past few years. In Massachusetts, the rate has increased slightly in the past year.

“You need a stronger wage growth to really entice those workers to really come off the sidelines,” Modestino said.

Adding to the glut of job openings is the fact that many employers are being more choosy about who they hire, a counterintuitive practice at a time when there are fewer qualified workers available. Companies are paying more attention to finding employees that will fit with the corporate culture; some are even giving applicants online behavioral tests or requiring potential employees to perform tasks before they make a job offer.

At the Copeland Package Store in Quincy, owner Dennis Carson is looking for a “dream person” to replace a 17-year employee who had to leave for health reasons. This person must be willing to work for close to minimum wage -- and be content to “stand at a counter and wait on people” for years to come. Carson has had less than 10 applicants in the two weeks his “Help Wanted” sign has been up at the store his grandfather built, and he hasn’t had time to check their qualifications because he’s been so short-handed. The job is for a full-time sales clerk, with vacation time and partial medical and dental insurance, but he can’t afford to pay much more than minimum wage. “People don’t want to work for $11 or $12 an hour,” he said.

Carson said he plans to keep his sign posted for a few more weeks — “unless my dream person walks in the door.”

The concept of full employment might sound like a good thing, but it can keep businesses from growing, said Goodman, of UMass-Dartmouth. Companies might choose to locate or expand operations in other states if they can’t find enough people to hire here, he said. Unfilled jobs can also lead to reduced levels of service and drive customers away.

North Weymouth, Ma., 06/13/17, Hiring sign in the front of Dunkin' Donuts. Employers struggle to find workers as the unemployment rate hits a 16-year low and the number of job openings rises to the highest level since 2000. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Hiring sign in the front of Dunkin' Donuts in North Weymouth.

The problem is exacerbated in Massachusetts, Goodman said, because the state has a relatively low birth rate and relies on outside workers to round out the labor market. This includes people coming in from other countries, he noted, which is becoming a bigger challenge as immigration and visa laws are tightened.

“The upshot for Massachusetts is that we have to deal with these problems or else we’re going to pay the price in terms of diminished growth,” Goodman said.

Some employers are finding they need to offer more incentives or retool their job descriptions in order to get the right candidates in the door.

Tech Goes Home, a small Boston nonprofit that provides technology training and access for low-income residents, a few weeks ago revamped a job description for a development position that has been open since November, downgrading it from a manager to an associate and reducing the years of experience required.

The three-person nonprofit doesn’t have a human resources department and can’t afford a recruiter, so it relies on e-mail blasts, social media posts, job sites, and “LinkedIn trolling,” said codirector Dan Noyes.

So far, he said, the response to the new posting has been underwhelming.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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