Help wanted: What is keeping people out of the Calhoun County labor market?

Help wanted: What is keeping people out of the Calhoun County labor market?

May 11, 2021 | By: Nick Buckley | Battle Creek Enquirer | Battle Creek, MI — Tony Burgett is not quite ready to re-enter the manufacturing industry.

It’s not due to any hesitancy about returning to a work environment amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the 60-year-old from Burlington said he’s simply waiting to receive his certification in maintenance next semester from the Kellogg Community College Regional Manufacturing Technology Center.

“I’m at the age where I don’t have a lot of years left to work. I want to work until I’m 65 or longer depending on what job I get,” said Burgett, who worked at the Ralston/TreeHouse Farms plant until it closed in 2019. “I haven’t put out resumes yet. I could walk into a plant and do the maintenance now, I just don’t have the certificates.”

For people like Burgett who are good with their hands, it’s a great time to be a job seeker. There’s an increased demand for skilled trade workers as well as those in the leisure and hospitality industries, due in large part to the impact of the pandemic.

As the pandemic lingers, some of the largest employers in the region are finding it difficult to attract talent, causing them to get creative through hiring events and offering incentives such as lucrative signing bonuses.

“The reality of it is the (worker) supply is not enough to meet the demand,” said Kevin Carson, president of DENSO Manufacturing Michigan Inc. “There’s something causing people to stay at home instead of pursing jobs. Not sure what that is. We can speculate… This is not a Battle Creek DENSO thing, quite honestly, it’s a north American issue. Every industry is dealing with this.”

Unemployment by the numbers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Calhoun County had a March unemployment rate of 6.4%, putting it in the bottom half of the state. Still, the rate has declined for three consecutive months and is a dramatic improvement from the record 24.2% reached in April 2020. The state unemployment rate also has experienced three consecutive months of decline, sitting at 5.1% in March.

Jobs in most industries in Michigan increased slightly in March compared to February, with the leisure and hospitality and construction industries seeing the biggest increase of 1.7%. Still, employment in the leisure and hospitality industry is down 17.2% in March compared with March 2020.

In Calhoun County this April, there were at least 121 job openings in the leisure and hospitality industry and 138 job openings in manufacturing. 

‘We’re trying everything to this point’

FireKeepers Casino Hotel is one of the area’s largest employers with some 1,800 workers. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi-owned casino hotel is currently looking to add over 100 new employees as it prepares to open its second hotel tower this summer.

Insufficient labor has already created some delays in construction, and now the casino hotel is looking to recruit new team members through monthly hiring events and incentives.

Frank Tecumseh, vice president of human resources for FireKeepers Casino Hotel, said the hiring events have drawn roughly half the number of applicants that were showing up to FireKeepers’ job fairs before the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of the positions offered now come with a $500 sign on bonus ($250 upon signing, $250 after 90 days).

Tecumseh said filling those positions in time for the planned Tower II opening is “a huge concern,” but he remains optimistic, citing the increased availability of vaccines as a reason job seekers should feel more comfortable about returning to or joining the workforce.

“The light is getting close to the end of the tunnel,” Tecumseh said. “We’ve had vaccination clinics here on the property, vaccinating staff free of charge and incenting them to get the vaccine with a $100 direct deposit as well as a drawing for a $1,000 travel voucher. We’re well over 50%, so we’re getting there and people are opening up to it and we’re rolling with the punches.”

The hospitality industry has particularly struggled to hire enough workers during the pandemic, with many restaurant owners saying they can’t compete with improved unemployment benefits. Many establishments have had to cut back hours due to the labor shortage.

Tecumseh said competitive wages are “one part of it,” and noted that FireKeepers has made it an initiative to be more flexible by making part-time and seasonal work available. He also said the tribally owned casino is discussing the removal of its pre-employment drug screening for marijuana in light of recreational cannabis use being legalized at the state level in 2018.

“Our competitors have removed (the drug screening), and I know it’s one reason that sometimes people don’t apply here,” Tecumseh said. “Everyone is sort of in the same boat. We’re looking at all avenues and means for recruiting, sending out postcards, putting up billboards, placing newspaper ads. We’re trying everything to this point.”

Ramping up recruiting efforts

DENSO, a global Fortune 500 auto parts company headquartered in Japan, is Battle Creek’s largest employer with about 2,900 workers at its thermal manufacturing facility in the Fort Custer Industrial Park. The firm is looking for nearly 80 workers to fill a wide range of positions, including production associate, lead machine operator, industrial electrician and maintenance machine repair. Each position will be offered sign-on bonuses between $500 and $15,500, some including relocation.

“DENSO is going to continue to be a big player in the auto industry, especially as we evolve into different forms of mobility,” Carson said. “We want somebody who maybe wants to learn about manufacturing and isn’t an expert, someone with good character and who is reliable and curious to get better. And we also want people experienced in manufacturing. Depending on that level of experience depends on where you are placed. We hope people are curious.”

Like FireKeepers Casino Hotel, DENSO Michigan Inc. has offered on-site vaccine clinics, with over 400 employees reportedly inoculated the week of May 3.

Carson said the company has ramped up its recruiting efforts in recent months in light of increased turnover and as a way to prepare for increased work volume amid disruptions in the auto parts supply chain.

“There’s a really big challenge in our industry because of shortage of components,” he said. “We shut down for a solid two months, they wanted to catch up. It put a big strain on the existing workforce. DENSO paid them to stay at home, for job security, financial security and mental security. When they came back to work they were thrown into a volume of work that was very difficult. One concern is that it’s going to happen again… One of the reasons we’re hiring now is so we can respond and get ahead of that demand that we are anticipating.”

Pandemic exacerbates need for skilled trade workers

As a generation of Baby Boomers heads into retirement, Michigan’s Department of Talent and Economic Development projects that 545,000 skilled trade jobs will be created by 2026, mostly in construction, manufacturing, health care, automotive and information technology industries.

Economists say employers can help close the skill gap by simply paying more for talent, or they can expand training programs.

Tom Longman, director of the KCC Regional Manufacturing Technology Center, said companies are now casting a wider net in looking for talent in skilled trades.

“In the past we’ve always received calls from local employers wanting to see students or wanting us to post jobs at the school,” he said. “Recently, in the last few months, calls are coming in from an hour away, an hour and half away. It shows this isn’t just a Battle Creek or Calhoun County problem, companies around Coldwater, Charlotte, Wayland, places in the last couple weeks that are all in the same boat.”

What might be unique to the area, Longman posited, is the region has a higher percentage of older workers.

“That’s a significant chunk of the workforce. We’re seeing a gap in people who are trained, not as many apprentices,” Longman said. “With the need that’s out there with employers, most students don’t make it close to graduation before employers are trying to snatch them up.”

The Employment Management Services Division of the Upjohn Institute manages employment and training services for Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties under the Michigan Works! umbrella. Ben Damerow, director of Michigan Works! Southwest said the nonprofit has done extensive research on what may be keeping people out of the labor market during the pandemic.

“When you add up the Michigan unemployment and federal pandemic unemployment, individuals are making $16.55 an hour,” Damerow said. “Obviously, if employers are offering less than that, individuals may tend to stay home.”

Damerow added that staying on unemployment for too long can be costly.

“For those choosing to stay on unemployment, based on the last recession, we saw those who stayed on unemployment longer came back into the workforce and had a long-term reduction in earnings,” he said. “We also saw some of the health impacts on longer-term unemployed as well… It’s important when employers are trying to find people, if you have had a poor work history, now is the perfect time to engage with employers and get back into the workforce.”

Child care issues are another barrier to employment, as the number of individuals citing the need to stay home for child care has more than tripled since the pandemic began in 2020. In the last three years, the number of child care providers in Michigan has dropped from 9,223 to now 6,700, according to a survey by Great Start for Quality, which is funded by the Michigan Department of Education.

Damerow also noted that many individuals with underlying health issues aren’t yet comfortable returning to the workplace out of concern for contracting COVID-19, or potentially carrying the virus and passing it along to unvaccinated or vulnerable family members.

Michigan Works! Southwest offers virtual job fairs and workshops on a weekly basis, and Damerow said the organization is seeking greater participation. They will soon be hosting in-person job fairs outdoors in the region.

“We have employers from every sector seeking people right now,” Damerow said. “We’re doing everything we can right now to connect job seekers with employers.”