Herald and Journal, May 31, 1999

Help wanted! Good employees hard to find these days

By Luis Puga and Andrea Vargo

According to the experts and economists, we are going through good economic times.

Stocks are reaching record highs and unemployment is low.

On the other hand, even the U.S. Department of Labor realizes that not all occupations provide a living wage, and farmers might not agree that these times are good.

It seems that any economic era comes with its ups and downs. It used to be that the big thing to watch for in the economy was inflation.

However, a few months ago, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, was actually concerned about a lack of inflation.

Of concern today in many parts of the nation - and certainly in Minnesota - is availability of qualified employees.

A national survey released by Select Appointments North America, a specialty staffing provider, shows that out of 300 senior executives, 51 percent feel that finding skilled workers is the greatest challenge facing their business in the next four years.

The scramble to find employees, and particularly good employees, has become difficult for many employers in all areas.

In the Twin Cities, the problem is said to be a constant complaint of the larger corporations. But what about in our neck of the woods?

Manufacturing Manager Bryan Just at Formative Engineering in Lester Prairie has said that it is true that Formative is having problems finding skilled workers.

"This year, we have been expanding a fair amount and with that expansion, we need technical people to support the whole process," he said. "It took us quite a number of months to get everyone in place that we were looking for."

He added that a significant percentage of the new employees came from outside the community.

Just said that the technical employees Formative is looking for only need to have the right foundation, and the company will provide the rest of the training.

In production work, where the requirements of education are less, the turnover of employees is high.

While some companies have opted to add more benefits to attract potential employees, Just said that everybody at Formative gets the same benefits.

He said the company has adjusted its policies to be more "user friendly." This includes allowing people more flexibility in time off.

However, he added, "That's kind of a hard topic to discuss because we do have rules that we have to comply with to keep production going. If everybody decided today was their day off, we'd be kind of screwed because we wouldn't have anybody to build anything."

In terms of the future, Just is optimistic.

Noting that he has heard of the concern over the lack of employees, he said, "I have to assume that we will find people. If you hold that as a stumbling block, progress will just be held down needlessly."

He adds that other parts of the state do not have such low unemployment, and people will migrate to where the jobs are.

Overall, Just feels the problem is not insurmountable. He said if the problem could not be dealt with, growth would be stifled.

Steve Millerbernd of Millerbernd Manufacturing believes, like all things in the business world, employment moves in cycles.

In that sense, he is not worried about finding employees.

He adds that he does have some concerns over worker performance. In short, he knows that employees know they can go somewhere else, perhaps from manufacturing to office jobs to "punch a keyboard."

But ultimately, he notes that other areas of the state may provide the necessary human power. He said that if other companies have layoffs somewhere else, people will migrate to the jobs.

Economic development director and Lester Prairie City Council Member Galen Hochstein said the problem is not only in the private sector, but in the public as well.

He notes that the city itself is having problems filling positions, adding that the city was lucky to find a person for a part-time summer help position.

Hochstein agrees that any company can lose money in training employees if there is a large turnover in the position.

Again for his own city, he notes that it is a training ground for police officers who are looking to go on to bigger cities. Currently, Lester Prairie is involved in a dispute with one of its former officers over paying back some of those training costs.

He notes that in terms of his job as economic development director, there is not much he can do. He knows that Hutchinson has taken to advertising in other states to find employees to come to the city. But, as a bigger city, it has the resources to do such promotions.

Ultimately, Hochstein believes that the issue forces businesses to get creative with flexibility in work schedules and seeking multiple part-time workers to fill positions.

How big the problem is, without the aid of specific statistics and measurements of trends, is hard to say. Admittedly, most of the employers are hesitant to speak on the subject and to what degree it affects business.

However, Hochstein said that if it is a problem with the larger employers, it can only be that much worse for the smaller employers.

Small businesses in a small town

Jim and Carolyn Ittel of Ittel's Meats in Howard Lake run into some of the same problems as other employers.

Their business is such that workers under age 18 cannot use some of the machines in the meat shop, because of federal child labor regulations.

"They can drive a car or a tractor, but they can't even wash the big knives by hand. It's considered too dangerous," said Jim.

The Ittels said that everyone they talk to is complaining about how hard it is to hire good help.

Jim said, "I had a guy for 35 years, and you could set your clock by him. He was always on time. You never had to tell him more than once about anything. He was 80 when he retired."

Some of the kids they find are willing to work, but the federal and state regulations keep them from doing much of anything, said the Ittels.

Another problem that seems common to all small business owners is that employees don't know how to follow orders.

Employees want to do things their own way, and can't even see why they shouldn't, said Carolyn.

"Some of them smoke, and feel they should be able to take a break when they feel like it, not on our schedule," she said.

Jim explained, "We really need to get these kids when they are 14 or so and teach them how to work, but here in the meat shop, our hands are tied with laws and regulations."

By the time they are old enough to do anything in the meat shop, they are already set in their ways and it is too late to teach them anything, unless they have learned it at home, he said.

The Ittels would like to have an older, reliable person work for them, but they are a small business and cannot pay what some of the bigger stores pay.

Carolyn has a friend who told her of some kids who worked at a Cub store for two days, quit, and didn't even bother to pick up their checks.

Parents just hand kids money, because they feel guilty that they are not home more, said Jim.

He noted, "Kids aren't being taught responsibility. I don't think parents even know what their kids are doing."

A restaurant is another business that relies heavily on high school students for its staff of waitpersons and kitchen help.

Bill and Gloria Strandquist of Red's Family Restaurant of Howard Lake have some of the same problems as the Ittels.

"Parents spoil these kids so badly, giving them money. The kids are either lazy, or just don't know how to work," said Bill.

He continued, "I could write a book about it. If you are too hard on them, they quit. They tell us they don't have to work; their parents give them all the money they need."

The Strandquists would prefer to hire younger mothers who want part-time hours, but there are so many jobs to pick and choose from, that employees seem to take those jobs that don't require as much physical effort.

With tips, the Strandquists' good waitresses make a lot more than the average wage, they said. Lack of service to the customer by the younger employees keeps them from earning as much they could, said Bill.

He continued, "If you do hire them and for some reason want them to work more hours, they won't."

The couple said they have to train the kids harder, because they don't know anything.

Strandquist said he blames the parents. Both parents have to work nowadays, and the kids have no home supervision.

This has all happened in just the last few years, commented the Strandquists. They used to have a list of kids who wanted to work.

Part of the problem is high employment, they said. Pay doesn't seem to matter.

The laws that affect the Ittels also affect the Strandquists. Their biggest problem is they can't stay open until 11 p.m. until school is out for the summer, because of the legally restricted work hours for high school employees.

The Strandquists said they have some good kids, but it takes a long time to find them.

Gerry Smith of Gerry's Super Valu also feels he has a good crew, but he has gone through quite a few people to get the good ones.

He said he has a hard time finding people who want to be employed.

"It's an open market for anyone who wants a job," he said.

Most of Smith's part-time employees are starting their first job, and the obvious problems are there, he said. They don't know what to expect on a job, and they haven't been trained for it at home or at school.

Smith sees a lack of respect for one another and for authority as a big problem with new employees.

They want to have everything their way, he said.

"We try to be flexible, but when someone asks for time off, it affects the whole team, and they don't seem to understand that," Smith commented.

The interview process is another stumbling block for employers, said Smith.

"Your hands are so tied in the interview. You can't ask a person how old they are, or if they have any disabilities," he stated.

He wondered how can he, as an owner, tailor a job to fit a desirable employee, if he doesn't know what that person can and can't do. Yet, he is legally liable if a person should lift too much and hurt himself.

In order to better communications with a prospective high school employee, Smith has instituted a new policy for interviews.

The second interview is conducted with the student's parents. That affords an opportunity for Smith to go over the hours the student can and cannot work and the number of hours required for the job.

Smith stresses customer service, ethics, and the employee's responsibility to the whole team.

"In a service-oriented business, I have to weed out those who won't fit that service model," he said.

Reiterating the Strandquists' observations, Smith noted the ideal job market is the young mother.

He offered another thought. One of the big problems with the young mother is the young father who doesn't help out around the house so his wife can bring in that extra income, he said.

Smith feels he pays a fair wage, and provides many perks for an employee who belongs to his team.

Smith said he also tries to show his appreciation for a job well done. Incentive pay is one way he does that.

Two employees, who do the same job, may make different salaries. It is not the amount of time a person has worked for the store, but the effort and responsibility put into the job that counts, he stated.

Smith likes the job shadowing program from the school that allows students to participate in the business world.

He tries to keep in contact with students about their grades and refers to his employees as his "store family."

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