CHEROKEE COUNTY — “Now hiring” signs have become a seemingly ubiquitous sight around Cherokee County, and for at least two local officials who keep their finger on the pulse of the labor market, they are a sign of a changing overall workforce.
Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce CEO Pamela Carnes said the pandemic has led to employees re-evaluating all aspects of their jobs, including pay, work/life balance, when and where they work, company culture and the flexibility offered by certain jobs. Meanwhile, many employers are scrambling to fill open positions by attempting to accommodate the updated priorities job seekers are putting at the forefront of their needs while continuing to keep their businesses viable.
Carnes said there is not necessarily a magic bullet to solve the issue. Rather, it will take continued self-assessment and evaluation from both job seekers and employers to strike a balance to get the local labor back to some sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.
Pandemic spurs re-evaluation of priorities
The onset of COVID-19 led to worldwide change in how most people “go to work,” and those changes have, at least in part, caused much of the workforce to re-examine all aspects of their careers. Meanwhile, the wide availability of jobs has allowed workers to pick and choose what employment prospects best fit those new priorities.
“People didn’t necessarily think about other options pre-pandemic,” Carnes said. “They were settled in a position. They were comfortable with the wage or salary they were earning, and they continued to get up each day and go to work. And then we turn the corner and we begin finding ourselves face-to-face with a pandemic, and people’s lives changed almost instantaneously.”
The pandemic changed aspects of how millions of Georgians work seemingly overnight, and for many, those updates were positive.
As local workers reconsider their work/life balance, pay, and the company for which they work, many jobs remain unfilled because of changed priorities.
“Jobs are available, it’s just not necessarily the job someone is looking for,” Carnes said.
That sentiment is shared by Debbie Underkoffler, president and CEO of North Georgia Staffing, a human resources consulting and staffing firm headquartered in Kennesaw.
“It’s an employee’s market without a doubt,” she said. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and it’s about the craziest I’ve ever seen it.”
Businesses have to make pay “first and foremost” to attract workers, Underkoffler said, but especially through the pandemic, company culture and employee quality of life are also vital.
Job seekers are less willing to take jobs with extreme hours or with companies that don’t fit the culture workers desire, Underkoffler said, and employees, regardless of their generation, want to feel valued.
Workers now have the benefit of shopping around to find a job that suits those needs.
“They don’t have to accept those jobs when the pay is too low or the hours too long because they can find something somewhere else,” Underkoffler said. “They don’t have to settle for anything anymore.”
Other aspects of pandemic lead to unfilled jobs
Workers wanting greener pastures are not the sole reason for a bevy of companies hiring, Underkoffer said. Those choosing to leave the workforce, for various reasons, have also left plenty of unfilled positions.
Underkoffler said Cherokee County attracts many residents over 62-years-old because of its tax structure, and when the pandemic began, many older workers chose to retire.
Others have left the workforce to serve as caretakers for loved ones. A September survey from the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers noted 44 percent of family caregivers nationwide who were previously employed full time chose to switch to part-time employment when the pandemic began. About 20 percent responded they had quit their job.
Childcare also comes into play, Underkoffler said. Some workers have been forced to only search for jobs that allow them to work remotely because parents are unable to find childcare facilities that can accommodate their kids because of their own staffing issues.
There are also jobs in which flexibility isn’t an option.
“There’s only so much that some types of businesses can do to alter their work hours or processes,” Carnes said. This is especially true in the hospitality, public safety, healthcare, production, assembly or distribution industries, she added.
While federal unemployment benefits have ended in Georgia, Underkoffler believes they have had a lasting impact on the labor market. She said some were making more money than they ever had by staying home.
The Georgia Department of Labor preliminary statistics show initial unemployment claims in Cherokee County were down nearly 88 percent in August — when the department’s most recent figures were issued — compared to August 2020. Over that same time span, the county’s workforce grew by over 8,000, preliminary figures from the department reported.
Underkoffler said her staffing firm saw an influx of job seekers when the federal benefits ended Sept. 1 in Georgia, but some are still not returning to the workforce. Those former workers and the changed mindset of many job seekers are leading factors in Cherokee County’s 2.2 percent unemployment rate, Underkoffler said.
“So many of those people have self-selected out of the workforce,” she said. “They just don’t want to go back. “We’re doing better since Sept. 1…but my recruiters are saying this is hardest it’s ever been to try and sell a job.”
Companies pivot to meet job seeker’s needs
With workers seeking careers that better fill their post-pandemic needs, companies have been forced to re-examine how they do businesses to keep jobs filled.
“Employers having to make some tough decisions, stepping back and looking at themselves in a different perspective of how can I continue to function as a business, as a viable business, with fewer employees,” Carnes said. “Employers are having to evaluate their employees and benefits, and in some situations, provide an ongoing, flexible schedule that includes a virtual option where it’s applicable. They are really looking at the overall package for an employee in order that they remain enticing to them.”
Many businesses have turned to incentivizing job seekers, and Underkoffler suggests that must start with salaries and hourly wages. Amid ongoing inflation and the national debate over minimum wage and pay rates in general, many workers are finding status quo salaries to be insufficient.
Some employers have had to reconsider the wages they’ve always offered, Carnes said, while balancing their other expenses.
But some businesses are doling out more monetary incentives like sign-on bonuses. Underkoffler said some Cherokee companies are offering bonuses to new employees or bumping pay based on attendance.
Underkoffler said these incentives have been effective in attracting in new hires.
Companies are also looking to other avenues, Underkoffler said, like seeking formerly retired workers or job sharing to fill positions.
Carnes said many employers are remaining flexible on working remotely, with many job seekers growing accustomed to and appreciating working from home during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
Labor market still has unknown road ahead
“Now hiring” signs are likely to continue be a regular sight around Cherokee County in the near future.
Companies will need to continually pivot to meet the needs of workers when possible, Carnes said, but she also believes some job seekers must understand they can still get to their ideal career gradually.
“I think it’s a bit challenging in that there are those who want to hold out for just the ideal position in their mind…but sometimes we have to start at ‘A’ and work to the next level,” she said.
Carnes said the local labor market is still in an unknown phase, so constant assessments and re-evaluations are needed by both employers and job seekers.
“The challenges definitely remain for business to grow their teams,” Carnes said. “And we are optimistic we will continue to see the decrease in (COVID) cases in order to see the increase in jobs filled, people employed within our community that are in positions just perhaps aren’t just jobs for them. It’s a career, and they are able to sustain themselves and their families.”