November 2021

Columbus Conversations: Why can’t businesses find enough workers? ‘It’s about more than money’

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
October 31, 2021

Sometimes the catchphrase “follow the money” does not lead to a complete answer.

Bill LaFayette, owner of economic consulting firm Regionomics, said it does not fully explain why the nation is experiencing a labor shortage.

“They (workers) were not sitting on the sidelines waiting for their benefits to run out. If so, then we would have seen a really big jump in the labor force once the benefits ended,” he said.

“We did see an increase in September in the Ohio labor force,” LaFayette said, “but no more than what we saw in June, July and August. The same is true elsewhere. Missouri ended their supplemental benefit back in June. Workforce officials saw virtually no increase in applicants the first few weeks after that. So as usual, it’s about more than money.”

A restaurant’s help wanted sign is written, appropriately enough, on a server’s ticket. This was at Lan Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant in the North Market.
LaFayette was one of six panelists who shared insights during the latest Dispatch Columbus Conversations online forum on Tuesday, which addressed the question, “Why Aren’t People Working?”

The other panelists who participated in the hour-long discussion were:

Shawn Hendrix, president of Nissen Chemitec America and the Central Ohio Manufacturing Partnership
Stephanie Hightower, CEO of the Columbus Urban League
Dwobeng Owusu-Nyamekye, dean of the College of Professional Studies and assistant professor of management at Wilberforce University
Rance Robinson, entrepreneur, Rob The Moment | A Visual Co. and Red 1 Realty
Sheila Trautner, president of Taste Hospitality Group and board chair of the Ohio Restaurant Association
Mark Fluharty, executive director of the Central Ohio Labor Council, AFL-CIO, was not able to take part in the event, a part of The Dispatch’s ongoing series of community conversations hosted by Opinion and Community Engagement Editor Amelia Robinson.

Edited excerpts from the discussion are below. Find a video of the discussion at DispatchWorking or on the newspaper’s Facebook page.

Increased peace with job change
Q: During the pandemic, you left a job that you held 19 years to become an entrepreneur. Why did you make that decision and what have been the challenges?

Rance Robinson of Rob the Moment. entrepreneur, real estate and photography

RANCE ROBINSON: “The pandemic caused people to choose themselves. Go, go, go, go, go. That’s what we did before we were shut down. A lot of people didn’t have time to think the way that we did during the quarantine.

“That’s really changed a lot. (People) began to see their mental health increase. I think people begin to see their peace increase. For a lot of folks it was, ‘I’m not going back there.’

“For a lot of people it was like, ‘we can work from home, (and) I can do this job remotely.’

“I couldn’t do that in my career, but I was dealing with a toxic work environment that caused me to choose myself.

“There are challenges, but it’s not a financial thing. I think the biggest challenge for everyone dreaming about ‘pie in the sky entrepreneurship’ is you have to realize that every action that you take when you’re dealing with your business, it’s going to be the food on the table for you, so to speak.

“You’ve got to be focused. You have to learn how to set your time. You have to get the time block. You have to really stay on schedule. It’s not a situation where you leave your job; you become an entrepreneur and then all of a sudden, everything falls into place.

“You still have to work, but you are in control. You’re not asking anyone for time off. You’re not asking anyone for sick time. You’re not asking anyone if you can go on vacation.

“These are the empowerments that have happened during the pandemic. A lot of people say, ‘I’m not going back to that,’ and I am one of them. I can’t see myself returning.”

New forms of employment
Q: Many bartenders and waitstaff members I know left the industry for other careers and education opportunities as a result of financial pressures and hostile customers. Did you see that happening? What sort of things have been successful in helping the situation?

Sheila Trautner, president of Taste Hospitality Group and board chair of the Ohio Restaurant Association

SHEILA TRAUTNER: “Obviously, the (restaurant) industry has been hit quite hard by the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic happening, the restaurant industry already had labor concerns, both in the kitchen and with service teams.

“The pandemic certainly exasperated that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a national chain, a mom-and-pop, or a big or small regional operator, the lack of employees makes it so much more difficult to run a restaurant business.

“When the pandemic happened, the majority of employees in the industry were laid off because businesses were forced to close their indoor dining.

“This pushed many to look for new forms of employment outside of the food service industry.

“I think that when restaurants were able to reopen, many had already left the industry and appreciated their work-from-home opportunities or flexibility (and) less evening responsibilities. I read recently with the National Restaurant Association that we still have nearly 1.4 million job openings in this industry right now.

“It’s been tough.

“This industry has been categorized as paying minimum wage, but at this point, we’re not.

“It’s very competitive out there. I talked to numerous operators being involved with the Ohio Restaurant Association, and wages are high.

“We’re doing a lot to try to stay competitive in the marketplace, whether that’s flexibility, competitive PTO, and just trying to have people come and say, ‘Hey, this is a great place to work.’ I think owners are thinking outside the box.”

Menu prices likely to rise
Q: Do you think we’re going to see increased food prices in restaurants?

SHEILA TRAUTNER: “So many restaurants have had to pivot their business, (so) absolutely.

“It’s not just the labor. There have been a myriad of restrictions that restaurant owners have had to deal with the past year and a half. Whether that’s mandated curfews, challenges with the supply chain, and sales pressure, inflation, lack of employees as well.

“Do not be surprised if menu prices go up, because the restaurant industry already runs on such a tight margin. I think you’ll find that especially small operators are going to have to find ways to stay afloat and to stay alive out there. I would not be surprised if consumers start seeing some menu bumps in prices.”

A ripple effect
Q: Child care has been cited by many as a reason women in particular have exited the job market. Are you seeing this?

Stephanie Hightower, CEO of the Columbus Urban League.

STEPHANIE HIGHTOWER: “Childcare is a huge barrier right now. Being able to have some flexibility is needed.

“We (the Urban League) had a situation where we were working with a temp agency. We could find people, but as soon as a child comes to school with COVID, then the whole classroom shuts down.

“The whole classroom shuts down, and all the parents now have to find that additional child care.

“You don’t have the after-school programs out there that we had before, and so we’re trying to figure it out. Especially for working poor folks, how do we create opportunities for after-school programming in facilities that are safe for parents to be able to stay at work?

“We’ve got to tackle this child-care issue.

“I was talking to the Columbus City Schools superintendent (recently), and they can’t find substitute teachers or bus drivers.

“Out in some of the suburban districts, they’re paying $185 a day now for substitutes to come in because they can’t find folks. A lot of that is the (teachers) don’t have child care to be able to stay at work. Bus drivers don’t have child care.

“There’s a huge shortage where they’re having to shut down schools because you can’t get the bus drivers to be able to take kids to school. It’s having a ripple effect.

“It’s all of those different components related to our children and schools that are also having a large impact on people being able to go back to work on a regular basis.”

Big changes in hiring policies
Q: Do you see unfilled jobs shifting to people who have in the past found it difficult to find work?

Shawn Hendrix, president of Nissen Chemitec America and the Central Ohio Manufacturing Partnership

SHAWN HENDRIX: “For close to a year now, we’ve been working with a great company working with second-chance citizens (people with criminal convictions). We’ve hired some of these individuals.

“Two of these individuals have just been exemplary individuals, and we’re going to be sending them to school for skilled trade. They will retain their employment (with) our company.

“It’s a hiring war right now. … Part of that, whether you’re in manufacturing, construction, restaurant, whatever your industry is, if you’re going to survive as an employer, you have to be willing to change.

“And we’ve also been recruiting heavily from a section of Columbus with a lot of new Americans and new refugees.

“Part of our change was (that before), you had to be able to speak English, write English. These individuals don’t. We still brought them in and we’re working with them and training. You train him differently.

“You show him how to do something instead of hand him a bunch of pages in English.

“If you had told me a couple of years ago, I’m going to pay for transportation for some of my workers, I would have probably looked at you little funny.

“We’re working with a company called Share Mobility and were paying for their transportation to and from our company. It is a war, and to be able to win in war, you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to be willing to change and not be so dyed in the wool as, ‘This is our policy, and it’s always gonna be our policy.’

“We basically tore up and set fire to a lot of our hiring policies here in the last year because one, we have to, and two, it’s the right thing to do with the population that we have in central Ohio.”

Options for workers, change for employers
Q: How has hiring changed?

Dwobeng Owusu-Nyamekye, dean of the College of Professional Studies and assistant professor of management at Wilberforce University

DWOBENG OWUSU-NYAMEKYE: “Corporations and organizations have to come out with new hiring policies after this pandemic. Because if you don’t change, people are thinking, ‘OK, how do I work for myself and not for anybody else, if they are not willing to change their practices?’

“We at Wilberforce, what we are doing in our entrepreneurship center is investing in our students and not just giving them theory lessons and book lessons.

“We are setting up student-run organizations on campus so that students will be able to run their organizations even before they leave college. The data states that (eight out of 10) minority-owned businesses collapse after 18 months of when they first start.

“We are guided by this principle and making sure the students get that mindset, run the organizations in college, so when they finish college, they take that skill and move into the community with that business.

“Right from the college, they’re working for themselves. They are not applying to any organization and that is what we are doing at Wilberforce.

“Organizations will have to change to be able to attract talent that they want. If not, we’re gonna be stuck.”

The chickens have come home
Q: Are there things that make you optimistic that we will end up in a better place?

BILL LAFAYETTE: “The thing that I’m really optimistic about is that I think the balance between employers and workers is shifting, and I think that shift is going to last.

“Perhaps the large wealth gap that we’ve seen in this country – larger than any time since the 1920s – I think those chickens are finally coming home to roost.”

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