For employers, times are tight

Inadequate training and an economic boom contribute to statewide labor shortages. 

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Adria Knight, an Alabama transplant, spent a couple of months searching for restaurant jobs in Portland before she found promising opportunities.

“I feel pretty optimistic,” Knight, 30, said. “There are tons of server and bartender gigs in Portland.”

A tight labor market ranks as the top concern for employers in Oregon’s food and beverage industry, as their key hiring season begins this month. In other sectors, including retail and construction, recruiters are stretching to find talent.

An economic boom and inadequate training has contributed to labor shortages. The U.S. unemployment rate continues to hover around 4%, the lowest figure in decades. Oregon’s unemployment rate, currently at 3.9%, is the lowest the state has experienced since at least the year 2000.

Janet Lee, recruitment program lead at Metro, says she struggles to find qualified electricians and construction workers. Those concerns echo throughout the trades, as young people continue to choose college degrees and tech boot camps over high-paying traditional trade jobs.

Even lower skill jobs have become harder to fill. During the recession, employers could pick and choose from a vast pool of overqualified applicants. A few years ago, Lee says, Metro received 400 applications for a receptionist job.

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That rarely happens today.

As the market tightens, food service has become one of the toughest areas to find qualified hires. About 67% of restaurant operators said increased competition for workers drove up costs, according to a recent survey conducted for the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News. Back of the house positions, including cooks and dishwashers, the survey noted, were the hardest to fill.

“It’s just a really competitive market for both front and back of the house,” says a recruiter for Aramark Catering. “You really have to think outside the box.”

Oregon Annual Unemployment Rate

2015: 5.6%
2016: 4.8%
2017: 4.1%

A few prospects trickled into a four-hour job fair Aramark hosted last week at the Oregon Convention Center, but it was largely quiet.

Job seekers who interviewed at the event felt positive about their prospects in the labor market. Sam Rubal, 20, searching for a second part-time job, says he feels like he has options, and employers are offering good wages and benefits.

“It feels faster, easier, more on point,” says another Portland job seeker, Trinidad Alvarado. “You can find a job immediately.”

“I think managers have a real need to put an emphasis on training,” Lee says, “instead of holding out for the perfect hire.”

Retail employers seem to be faring slightly better than those in food service. Target received 70 online applications, and around the same number of walk-ins to a job fair aiming to fill 50 positions in its new store in southeast Portland, says store manager Anil Thundiyil. Amazon characterized a mass hiring event for 1,500 jobs at its new Troutdale warehouse as “successful,” although it declined to comment on the number of attendees.

While it might not be feasible for restaurants, which run on notoriously tight margins, a sure way to attract talent is stepping up wages. The Aramark representatives were optimistic that the recent minimum wage increase would help drive recruiting.

Elsewhere, service industry employers seem to be paying more. A recent study from the Oregon Employment Department found that state wages have been rising about as fast as the national average (3%), but percentage gains were strongest for those in the lowest wage category.

Knight says Oregon’s progressive labor laws give it an edge over other states for restaurant workers. Servers and bartenders in Oregon make minimum wage, and can net $30 to $40 an hour after tips.

Besides raising wages, another option for recruiters is refocusing their efforts on training instead of headhunting. Lee says Metro is working on developing partnerships with Oregon Tradeswomen and other industry groups to develop talent pipelines.

“I think managers have a real need to put an emphasis on training,” Lee says, “instead of holding out for the perfect hire.”

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