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IN DEPTH: Employers are feeling the crunch of low unemployment

IN DEPTH: Employers are feeling the crunch of low unemployment


It is the start of football season, but you are more likely to see a help wanted sign in a window than a Packers sign throughout Wisconsin. The state is currently enjoying one of its lowest unemployment rates in decades.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fluctuated right around three percent over the last three years, hitting a low of about 2.4 percent in October of 2018. Juneau County, as of July 2019, is at 3.1 percent, while Columbia County is at 3 percent and Sauk County at 2.7 percent.

While the job environment is great for workers looking for a job, the low unemployment means that employers are having trouble filling all of the positions they have available.

Bus problems

The Wisconsin Dells School District, like nearly every school district in Wisconsin, is having trouble finding enough bus drivers to fill all of the routes. The school district has 21 routes each day, with more on days where students need transportation for extracurricular activities or sporting events.

According to Wisconsin Dells School District Superintendent Terry Slack, the district could use more drivers. Supervisors, such as Director of Transportation Fred Steinhorst, are filling in as substitute drivers whenever a regular bus driver cannot make a route.

“It would be great if we had a few more drivers,” Slack said. “We have enough routes presently to start the year, but … we have a limited supply of sub drivers.”

While increasing the safety of routes, new regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration increasing the qualification requirements for bus drivers will not make it any easier to find drivers.

Under the new regulations, drivers have to attend and complete Entry Level Driver Training and drivers with class “B” and “C” Commercial Driver Licenses need to add a “P” endorsement.

To address the shortage, the district has twice voted to improve bus driver pay over the last year. Slack said the district increased pay mid-year in the 2018-2019 school year, and again bumped pay during the district’s annual adjustment. The Board of Education also voted to offer a $300 sign on bonus for new drivers in October 2018, so long as drivers drive routes for 60 working days and have no moving violations or accidents.

“We’re not the highest (pay), but we’re above median for the area,” Slack said.

The shortage’s effect could be exacerbated in the coming years as current drivers look to retire.

“There’s been people who are extremely loyal to us as a district,” Slack said. “If there was a waiting list for drivers to come onboard to the district, I’m not so sure they wouldn’t retire. They’ve been very good to us over the last few years, but at some point someone is going to want to retire because they’ve earned the right.”

Slack said the bus driver shortage is not just an issue facing the Wisconsin Dells School District.

“Trying to find that replacement, it’s a challenge that faces a lot of school districts in Wisconsin,” Slack said. “But this isn’t just a south-central Wisconsin issue, this is a state issue and this is a national issue.”

Despite the issues finding drivers, Slack says the job is steady and could be a good fit for many who might not have considered driving buses previously.

“During the day … if they want to play golf, they can play golf,” Slack said. “A lot of the drivers have other day jobs … it’s a good, steady, part-time job, so it fits that itch of people who are looking for work that fits their schedule.”

The district also works with applicants to help them obtain their commercial driving license.

“Our drivers are driving our most valuable commodity, and that’s our kids,” Slack said.

Restaurants need help

The Sauk Prairie Grill, located in a historic building from 1880 right next to the Wisconsin River in Sauk City, recently had to close for the day when the chef got sick.

“We absolutely just had to close,” said Sauk Prairie Grill Operating Manager Joyce Gillen. “You can’t just go find a chef somewhere; you need backup for every position.”

The restaurant currently employs about 25 people, according to owner Dick Gillen. They could easily use another four people at least, he said.

The positions open include hostesses, servers, and a line cook. Joyce Gillen says that a good personality is important for each position, but other skills needed include running point of sales systems and a good memory.

“We’re certainly able to train,” Joyce Gillen says. “We encourage retirees who might be looking to get out of the house to do a split or something like that (to apply).”

Joyce Gillen says the current employment market means employees are working longer hours than the Gillen’s would prefer, as they would like to offer the employees more free time. According to Dick Gillen, the restaurant industry is unique in the employment market because the day starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m.

“It’s really a two shift business, so if people want a normal 8-9 hour shift, we have to have double the employees as a normal business would have,” Dick Gillen said.

While the restaurant’s normal operations have not yet been effected, besides closing if the chef gets sick, Joyce Gillen says they sometimes have to pay overtime to employees to fill shifts.

“Right now we’re holding,” Joyce Gillen says. “There’s just a crisis everywhere as far as the restaurant employees, employees for all restaurants, and so many others. The economy is just against us as far as employment ratio is concerned.”

The Gillens advertise outside of their restaurant with a now hiring sign, and have applications available at the front register.

“So far we’ve been very fortunate with people coming to us,” Joyce Gillen said. “It’s hard to know where to place an ad for people who would be interested in doing it, because the younger ones are all online and the older people will have a tendency to look for written word somewhere to look for employment.”

Staffing issues

With their entire industry relying on an ability to find employees for businesses, the staffing agency Remedy Intelligent Staffing is also feeling the crunch of the workforce shortage.

“It’s definitely been more challenging for us to identify candidates,” said Market Manager Jeff Darrow. “It’s a lot more work trying to find candidates for our clients.”

Darrow covers three offices for Remedy, including the Reedsburg, Baraboo, and Portage offices. In total, Remedy has 18 offices across Wisconsin. According to Darrow, each office has about 25-50 openings for candidates at any given time.

“I think it speaks volumes to where the unemployment rate is right now in this area,” Darrow said. “In Sauk County, Columbia County, and pretty much statewide, this is standard.”

The staffing agency focuses heavily on industrial candidates because of the type of businesses in Sauk and Columbia Counties. Darrow says companies in the area are looking for everything from entry-level assembly and production positions to skilled trade positions such as maintenance technicians and welders.

The biggest change the booming economy for workers has brought is an increased need for speed in the staffing industry.

“We’re seeing that applicants aren’t sticking around,” Darrow says. “If we’re not engaging them and moving the process forward in 24-48 hours, essentially we’re losing that applicant because there are so many other opportunities out there.”

Businesses are not just sitting on their hands though. The lack of candidates has caused some companies Remedy represents to swing towards automation.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, over the course of the years and the changing economy, it’s flipped back and forth between being a candidates market and an employer’s market, but in general I’ve been seeing (automation) more,” Darrow says. “A couple companies in my area have put a robot in for packaging, or another has for packing (and) palletizing things, just different things such as that to… lighten the load on the people.”

Juneau County looks forward

Automation, along with youth apprenticeships, are methods business in Juneau County are using to deal with the workforce shortage.

The Juneau County Economic Development Council has spent the last three years working on best practices with businesses that companies can use to attract and retain employees.

“This year we started to do something a little bit different, a little bit more extreme, which is workshops on smart automation which includes optimization, so that you can grow your business without adding more employees,” said Juneau County Economic Development Council Executive Director Terry Whipple. “We’re also looking at apprenticeships. So we’re trying some unique, different things… because this shortage is going to last long into the future.”

Whipple says the unemployment rate in Juneau County is so low that he once had to write a report for a company’s board of directors assuring them they would find employees in the county. In the case of one Juneau County restaurant, Whipple said the owner felt he needed to stop advertising because the amount of employees he had could not support any more clientele.

“We’re concerned with our restaurants and the tourism industry, but we’re probably most concerned with those high paying jobs in manufacturing, because we want to make sure that if they can, and they need to grow, that they can find the employees or find a way to grow without adding more employees,” Whipple said.

Whipple says one of the easier ways manufacturers can grow in an economy with low unemployment is to bring in machines to automate certain jobs. Leer Inc. in New Lisbon brought in a machine that automated the jobs of 15 people, according to Whipple, and the company was then able to move those 15 employees to other areas where they were “desperately needed.” Whipple said Mitotech Precision in Necedah similarly is using a machine to replace six employees, allowing the company to grow without hiring more employees.

“If you can find employees and pay them lower wages, you don’t need to automate,” Whipple said. “But if you can’t find employees and it’s costing you more for employees, it kind of makes that decision for you.”

While automation is a possible solution in the manufacturing industry for larger businesses, restaurants have a harder time automating. Some large chains, like McDonalds and Taco Bell in Mauston, have added kiosks that take orders instead of the cashier. However, they still have cashiers, and smaller restaurants often do not have the budgets to automate jobs.

To entice workers, businesses across Juneau County have increased wages, according to Whipple. Businesses are also getting creative with benefits.

“Some of the ways they’re dealing with the shortage is giving more flexibility, so that say older workers they can keep working if they only want two or three days a week, or even partial days,” Whipple said. “We’re seeing a lot of our businesses do programs for those that are looking towards retirement, so they can keep them in the workforce.”

Other companies are offering apprenticeship programs, or providing training at corporation’s expense for people who may not have the skills necessary for a job but are willing to work.

Whipple says the Juneau County Economic Development Corporation will continue to hold workshops to help businesses, and he welcomes businesses contacting him for assistance.

“We can tie them in with not only consultants but HR directors, and we can teach best practices,” Whipple said. “There’s plenty of jobs out there… so we’re trying to keep this workforce in this area.”

Reach Christopher Jardine on Twitter @ChrisJJardine or contact him at 608-432-6591.

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