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How Hall County’s tight labor market is affecting local businesses
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Zebra Technologies employee Heriberto Baraja packs a box of lables to be shipped Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, at the Flowery Branch site. A labor shortage has hit manufacturers and other employers hard. - photo by Scott Rogers

Don’t be surprised if service takes a little longer when visiting your favorite local restaurant, especially if there’s a “Help Wanted” sign on the door.

“There have always been tough positions to fill,” said Tina Roberts, co-owner of 2 Dog restaurant in Gainesville. “But this is the first time we’ve had this tight of a squeeze for employment. … We’ve just never had quite that hard of a time finding people to work.”

It isn’t just a restaurant problem. With a jobless rate of 2.9% in Hall County, the lowest in Georgia, which has an overall 3.6% rate, the labor shortage is affecting other sectors, including poultry and manufacturing.

“We’ve had to close entire departments because we didn’t have enough people to man them,” said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms, a poultry processor that operates in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia.

“Today is a real contrast to 2010, when we had less than 80,000 in the Hall County workforce and an unemployment rate around 9%,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

The latest data issued in August indicates Hall’s workforce has grown to 102,169.

Unemployment over 10 years

July 2009: 9.6% with a labor force of 90,293 people

2010: 9.6%

2011: 9.1%

2012: 8.5%

2013: 7.3%

2014: 6.9%

2015: 5.3%

2016: 4.9%

2017: 4.1%

2018: 3.4%

2019: 2.9% preliminary with a labor force of 104,478 people

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

“That is a record-setting number … and the trend indicates it is still growing,” Evans said.

Pao Sengkhammee, senior operations manager for Zebra Technologies in Flowery Branch, sees two key issues in the labor shortage.

On the retention side, “good employees will look for better opportunities and when you’re working with the hourly population, it can be an attraction of 50 cents more an hour,” he said.

And then hiring becomes a challenge of finding quality, experienced hourly workers.

The problem isn’t higher-level positions, Sengkhammee said.

“We go out of state and whatnot, wherever we can find them,” he said.

Phil Sutton, Kubota vice president of administration, said his company has tweaked its hiring approach, doing more direct hiring and less using temporary worker agencies.

“We’re going to job fairs and making offers on the spot,” he said. “And we’re having job fairs on Saturday,” he said. “In a full-time employment environment, it’s hard for people to get away and go to job fairs during the week.”

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce is holding a jobs and career fair Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the Gainesville Civic Center, but has held a Saturday job fair in a move to match up employers with more candidates.

Job Fair

What: 70-plus companies interviewing candidates in Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce event

When: 2-6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24

Where: Gainesville Civic Center, 830 Green St.

Admission: Free, and a shuttle will be provided

The labor shortage has been problematic for some time.

The 750 people who came to a March 2018 chamber job fair sounds like a big number, but 900 showed up at the chamber’s 2017 fair — a number that shows it’s a job seeker’s market, with workers finding it much easier than in past years to snag a job.

“I can remember (chamber job fairs) when we were supposed to start at 10 a.m., and at 8:30, (people) were lined all the way down the sidewalk,” said Kimberly Dobbs Scott, vice president of operations for McDonald’s of Northeast Georgia Inc., which is a job fair regular.

Last year, employers “were talking to each other,” she said.

"Regionally, demand for employees remains strong,” said Stacey Reece, owner of Spherion Staffing and Recruiting in Gainesville. 

“Employers continue to struggle to find skilled workers who are work ready, and (they) are willing to hire lesser skilled employees. These workers are put through abbreviated training to get them up to speed and then supplemented with on-the-job training."

At the March 2018 fair, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said, “Seven or eight years ago, the big issue was not enough jobs and, today, we have a lot of jobs. I’ve talked to a half-dozen companies so far, and I’ve counted up 350 job openings. And a lot of (the jobs) pay really well.”

Georgia, as a whole, is in “a very tight labor market,” he said in an interview last week.

The Hall County area “is actually in pretty good shape, because you have been adding individuals in your workforce,” he said. “Some parts of the state lose workforce.”

Still, Hall companies have employed more than the number of people entering the workforce.

“That means you’re really digging into some of the folks who may have been unemployed a little bit longer,” Butler said. “And employers are looking at some … folks with less experience, which is good.”

Evans agreed that the number of jobs has grown faster than the number of people entering the workforce, with much of the growth in health care, advanced manufacturing, logistics, construction and services.

“If you drill down further, there are other challenges for employers to find the talent they need,” he said. “Demographics and time are two examples. Many employers have shared that a large number of their highly skilled workforce are baby boomers and will retire in the next five years.”

He added: “When that highly experienced skill-set does retire, it can leave a skills void in the business that can be challenging to fill.”

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