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In a tight labor market, employers scrape for employees

Posted on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at 2:29 pm

Judge Milan Berry addresses the Business Roundtable. Photo by Adam Thorp.

By Adam Thorp

A strong labor market in Pike County is pushing employers to raise wages and look for untapped pools of workers.

That’s according to employers attending the 2019 Business Roundtable, hosted Thursday by Pike County Economic Development. The event featured presentations by representatives of the justice system in Pike County and a statewide apprenticeship program. Staff members of local employers and schools attended and presented their concerns.

There were typically different versions of the same problem: too few workers.

The unemployment rate in Pike County has hovered around 4 percent in the first three months of 2019, according to data gathered by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, a state agency. In October 2018, the rate fell to 2.6 percent. Since 1990, the rate has fallen below that number only twice—in October 1999 and October 2017.

On the front line of Pike County’s tight labor market: its fast food restaurants, according to Mike Knight, who represented McDonalds management on the panel.

“We pay higher than anybody in town, in the fast food business, and we can’t keep employees. The price of running a fast food business continues to go up, fighting for wages to increase and increase and increase,” Knight said. “My prediction is—and everybody tells me ‘don’t talk like that’—I think that in four or five years there are only going to be a couple of fast food businesses in this town, because of the price of (paying) employees.”

Knight said starting salary is $9.50 an hour and he is still struggling to keep employees.

WORK AND THE COURT SYSTEM

As the labor market heats up, people who employers would have previously passed over are getting a second look, including people caught up in the court system.

They were the focus of Associate District Judge Milan Berry’s presentation to the group. Berry said his approach came from a place of empathy.

“Way before I was a lawyer or a judge I used to own a trucking company. I had three 18-wheelers, five drivers,” Berry said. “Let me tell you, a truck driver is not calling you at 2 a.m. to tell you how great everything is going and how happy he is to work for you. It’s hard to be a business owner, its stressful to be a business owner and it consumes you.”

Berry laid out some of the steps he had taken to accommodate business owners and workers in his court, including adjusting his docket to prioritize people with pressing business elsewhere and looking for ways to get people into jobs.

Mike Vieira, of Iron Horse Energy Service, shared a pressing problem for his company, which dispatches work crews around the country for different jobs: frequent court dates and required in-person visits with probation officers. Workers who had to leave the job site too often to return to Pike County were effectively unemployable, said Vieira.

“[It] eliminates the possibility to continue to work for me. It takes their livelihood away,” Vieira said. “And next thing you know, they’re back on the courthouse steps.” Sparks said his workers faced the same problem.

Vieira suggested that the problem could be alleviated if clients could use video conferencing services—a solution the parole officers at the round table said was pre-empted by state requirements outside of their control. Berry floated another possibility: court probation under his supervision, an option less wedded to state rules.

“Mike, you guys pay real well. On low level drug offenses, where there aren’t victims or sex crimes or anything like that, we can consider thinking outside the box,” Berry said. “Call it a work court or something. But if you have the jobs for them, I’m interested in doing something like that, where they can make that kind of money in Pike County.”

“If you need workers, I’ll find them for you,” Berry added.

OTHER ISSUES

The wide-ranging discussion touched on a range of other issues: the importance of attaching more prestige to vocational work, measures to accommodate working mothers, and how training and accreditation programs could act as plums for potential employees.

Suzanne Richards, on behalf of the Missouri Registered Apprenticeship programs, which helps employers offer employees training programs, said, “Its one of the reasons I haven’t retired yet. It’s one of the best things that ever happened, seriously. We need it, our state needs it, our communities needs it, our employers need it.”

The goal of the day, according to Pike County Economic Development Director Carolyn Wisecarver, was to continue the process of putting people worried about the labor force situation in Pike County in touch with the various resources available to help.

“We’re trying to reach out to the state, and the different departments, and the different areas, to see where we can try to fill the employers with a good, quality labor force,” said Pike County Economic Development Director Carolyn Wisecarver. “We want to keep reaching out to the businesses, in every way we can, to see what rock we can flip over to get good employees.”