FLETCHER – It is a sign of the times — a dollar sign.
Typically, local job fairs will promote the quality of the companies attending, career opportunities or solid benefit packages, and maybe mention “competitive pay” in passing. But this one puts the big hook right in the title: “$17 per Hour and Beyond Job Fair.”
“We normally have job fairs throughout the region on a regular basis, but this is the first time we have focused on a certain wage level and higher,” said Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, which is hosting the job fair on June 15. “It’s important to note that we had a tight labor market before the pandemic, so even then it wasn’t easy for employers to hire. At that time employers were raising wages and expanding their talent pool to add the workers they needed.”
The job fair has just under 60 slots available for employers, and Ramsey said June 3, “We are almost completely maxed out; the demand by employers is overwhelming.”
Unemployment down, but labor participation still low
The hiring market was tight already in early 2020, then the pandemic threw a wrench in everything. Ramsey noted that their most recent labor market data just came out for April 2021, and it shows the unemployment rate for April in the Asheville metro area (Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Haywood counties) was 3.9%.
The number of unemployed people is going down — for the region it declined from 8,846 in March to 8,137 in April. But a lot of people still have not rejoined the workforce.
“Probably the greatest factor driving our tight labor market is the decline in our labor force,” Ramsey said. “This past year we have seen many people drop out of the labor force for multiple reasons including retirement, health concerns, child care and caregiving responsibilities, etc.”
As of this spring, the board’s four-county region (Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania) had 203,767 people employed, 12,017 fewer than in February 2020, before COVID-19 devastated the economy. Overall, the region has 9,464 fewer labor force participants than in February 2020.
In the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Ramsey said, the region had about 35,000 people unemployed. That number “has declined to 8,137 in April, and I would expect the number in May will be even lower,” Ramsey said.
The workforce board is encouraging employers to consider populations they may not have in the past, including those with criminal records or past problems with substance abuse, Ramsey said. While some employers mention that extended unemployment benefits may keep some workers on the sidelines, that’s just one of many factors, he added.
“When the enhanced benefits expire (in September), we will continue to have far greater demand for workers than supply,” Ramsey said.
In short, Western North Carolina employers are scrambling to fill positions as the economy recovers from the pandemic, while unemployment rates are once again low. The trend will likely continue, and that means employers are having to sweeten the pot.
Employers competing on benefits, too
The upcoming job fair, to be held at the WNC Agricultural Center’s Virginia Boone Building, will feature some of the region’s largest employers, such as Mission Health and local governments.
“To participate, employers must offer at least one position paying $17 per hour or more,” the press release notes. “Most participating employers have many positions available paying $17 per hour or more.”
Ramsey said the workforce board did not require employers to offer benefits to participate, “but almost every job available at this upcoming job fair will offer health benefits, some type of retirement plan, 401K, etc., among other benefits.
“Employers aren’t just competing on wage rates, they are competing on benefits as well,” Ramsey said.
One company needs 65 people
Chris Pennington, marketing manager with M.B. Haynes in Asheville, said many of their jobs typically exceed that $17 threshold, especially once employees are trained and have acquired more skills.
Haynes, which employs 578 people total, has 26 jobs advertised and needs to hire about 65 people, Pennington said. The company hires experienced workers as well as entry level, with those jobs typically starting at $14-$16 an hour. The company also offers a full benefits package.
The company has multiple divisions, including plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, solar power and construction. Through the pandemic, work remained steady, but the company is seeing extremely high demand now as the pandemic eases and life returns to normal.
“We’ve been getting the job done, but our guys have been putting in a lot of extra hours,” Pennington said. “So we need to balance that out by bringing in new recruits to shore up our folks who have been here and have been bearing the load.”
It’s a long-term trend
Haynes is not alone.
The workforce board says just about all employers in the region are in the same boat, scrambling to bring on enough workers. And it could be a long-term problem.
“The longer-term challenge is we are seeing a demographic drought of workers as the Baby Boom generation retires, the number of students graduating from high school starts to decline and the number of immigrants also continues to decline,” Ramsey said. “Some have warned about the dangers of automation wiping out many jobs in the not too distant future, but employers will be forced to automate when possible due to a declining number of individuals in the workforce.”
The North Carolina Department of Commerce, in a report on “Labor Force Challenges” in the mountain region, says plenty of theories and anecdotes offer reasons for the reluctance to return to work, but there’s “no data yet to supply a definitive answer.” Commerce says it’s likely a combination of many causes, including a fear of getting sick, workers still taking care of children or family members, workers being enrolled in college or training and some who’ve moved out of the area.
Also, some people might not need to work yet because they’re still getting unemployment or getting by on stimulus money or other relief programs, the Commerce Department stated in its report.
The labor market report estimates the region will see 14,500 new jobs between 2018 and 2028, with 91% of all net new jobs in the services field.
The upshot is employers have plenty of job openings, and pay is more competitive than ever. The job fair event, which is free for both employers and job seekers, hopes to entice more workers into the market.
An expensive place to live
The $17 an hour wage threshold should come as welcome news to jobseekers. As the Citizen Times reported in May, Asheville and its metro region have the highest cost of living in the state — but incomes are well below the national average.
Just Economics, an Asheville-based regional membership organization that educates and advocates for a sustainable economy, increased its “living wage” rates for the area. in 2021. For Buncombe County in 2021, the living wage rate is $17.30 an hour, or $15.80 an hour with employer provided health insurance.
The rate in 2020 was $15.50 an hour without qualifying employer provided health insurance, or $14 an hour with employer provided health insurance. For Rural WNC counties, the living wage rate is $13 an hour.
Pennington noted that M.B. Haynes offers a lot of jobs that turn into lucrative careers. The company has been in business for 100 years in Western North Carolina and has 96 employees who’ve been with the company over 20 years, including several project managers and other leaders who joined the company with little or no experience.
“Regarding top wages — depending on your willingness to work out of town and overtime — it’s not uncommon to have field employees making over $75,000 annually,” Pennington said.
Pennington and other employers say, in short, it’s a great time for people looking for work, with all kinds of educational backgrounds in demand.
“The thing is with the skilled trades, it can be very very lucrative,” Pennington said. “And it’s a true career, the type of career…
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