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Help wanted: Workers are harder to find in Hall County
Industry leaders challenged by shrinking workforce in area
A “Now Hiring” sign is seen outside of the Cook Out restaurant in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Jobless rates (through July)

U.S.: 4.3 percent

Georgia: 4.7 percent

Hall County: 4.3 percent

Jobs are plentiful in Hall County and throughout Georgia, but finding workers to fill them is becoming an acute challenge, industry leaders say.

With the state unemployment rate at 4.7 percent, the lowest it’s been since September 2007, employers find themselves competing for a shrinking pool of workers in a robust economy.

Adding to the concerns of many is the degree of uncertainty over the supply of immigrant labor stemming from policies proposed in Washington. Those concerns are real in Hall County where immigrants fill jobs in agriculture, chicken processing plants and the service sector.

“I have never seen staffing this bad,” said Karen Bremer, chief executive officer of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “I don’t think it’s just isolated to service and agriculture industries. I’m hearing it from every sector that people are looking for good people to work.”

Bremer said GRA does not support illegal immigration, but the organization has been front and center in advocating that the federal government do something to fix the country’s broken immigration system. She said GRA is fully in favor of a more robust guest worker program, a pathway to citizenship for those who have deep roots living and working in this country, border security and a reliable system for verifying people’s identity.

“Government and business turned a blind eye, in my opinion, to what was going on when we needed more workers when we had economic growth going on,” Bremer said. “Then, when things started getting tight and we had a recession, that’s when the witch hunt started happening.”

Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association said the low unemployment rate in Georgia means the workforce “is less than it has been in several years.”

Sprouse said low unemployment paired with an increase in new businesses is making it difficult for employers to “find people to fill vacancies.”

The GHLA has launched in the Atlanta airport area a new hospitality training program that it hopes to expand. He said the five-week boot camp program offers prospects the training needed to enter the workforce very quickly.

“Hotel and Lodging operators are constantly involved in developing their workforce through their own training programs or affiliation with hospitality-related training programs ranging from internships to more formal curriculum programs,” Sprouse said.

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said he’s not aware of labor shortages this year for farm field workers. Hall said the larger farms, such as Jaemor Farms in Alto, get their workers through the H2A guest worker program.

“Those farms that need a large number of harvesters, many of those are the farms that are going to the H2A program just to be able to know they can get workers,” Hall said.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said the labor market is tight for a lot of employers, and the poultry industry is no exception.

“Most any poultry processing facility in our area, or really in Georgia, there are jobs available every week for potential employees,” Giles said.

Giles said the poultry industry nationwide has been advocating for immigration reform for more than a decade. He said any reform should include addressing the need for future workers with a status that would allow them to work in the U.S. when the labor market indicates that the domestic workforce is not meeting employers’ demands.

“We think that’s one of the key elements of immigration reform that should be included,” Giles said, while recognizing that border security also is needed, along with resolving the status of those workers already here who are undocumented.

Rafael Torres, a staffing and recruiting executive in the Gainesville area, said the answer to reducing, if not ending, the use of undocumented workers is to expand the guest worker program. He’s making his case to several Georgia politicians, including U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

“My idea is to upgrade guest visas and allow nonseasonal industries like poultry, food packing, distribution centers (and) manufacturing to bring guest workers to Northeast Georgia through H2B visas,” Torres wrote to Perdue’s office. “Most of those industries tolerate illegal immigration because they don’t have a legal alternative to having good hard working unskilled and semi-skilled workers.”

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