Where are the workers? Employers are facing an unprecedented staffing crisis

Pt 2 of 3: As they struggle to fill jobs, employers find new ways to hire and retain staff

Despite low unemployment, millions of jobs remain unfilled.

The latest U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) data revealed there are 11.5 million job openings across the nation. That’s 5.6 million more jobs than available workers.

So, where are the workers?

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh tackles that question in a three-part series examining the U.S. staffing crisis.

In part one, she spoke to a group of local workers to understand why American workers are quitting their jobs in droves.

A record 4.5 million people quit their job in March, according to DOL.

For part two, she turns to local employers to find out how they’re coping and what they’re doing to turn the trend around.

Remon Karian, owner of Fiorella’s restaurants, says he’s pulling out all the stops to hire and keep good people.

“It’s not only challenging, finding new people, but it’s difficult keeping the people you have,” he said.

With two decades in the restaurant business, Karian says high turnover is not unusual in his business, but this is unlike anything he’s seen.

“It’s really puts a strain on the current team, because we’re asking so much more of them,” he said

Karian, who is on the verge of opening a sixth location of Fiorella’s, describes the pandemic as two big swings: a period when fewer workers were needed because business slowed and when diners started dining out again. It’s that latter period that’s left him asking, “Where are the workers?”

“Our culture is the most important thing that I have. We really, really try to make sure our team is happy, provide that work-life balance as much as possible. But these days, it gets really hard to do that,” he said.

To retain employees, Karian says he’s investing in his people. He is offering professional development to any employees who wants it, in training sessions that he’s dubbed “Fiorella’s University.”

“We teach them some of the leadership skills and softer skills that come with a position,” he said. “We’ve increased our sick time. We have a pretty aggressive PTO policy.”

Employers in other sectors are also finding creative ways to recruit and retain staff.

Delilah Atkinson owns College Nannies and Sitters Boston, a company that employs care professionals and matches them with families depending on their specific needs.

When the pandemic first hit, she wasn’t seeing much new business. But now that people are back to work, she says demand has exploded. To meet the soaring demand, Delilah said she’s had to reshape her business by expanding the pool of recruits from college students to experienced moms and grandmothers.

“We’re doing a lot of modification as to who we attract. But we’re also really focused on retention. If we can keep our caregivers, then we don’t necessarily have to recruit all of the time,” she said.

To that end, Delilah says she’s dedicating more time to really listening to and getting to know each of her employees. She wants employees to feel comfortable and that includes more frequent check-ins and get togethers.

“We do personality assessments and values questionnaires on everybody because one person is going to need to be managed differently from the other,” she said. “And we’re thoughtful about things like birthdays.”

Little things, like observing work anniversaries and birthdays, go a long way toward keeping employees happy, says Debra Thompson with Boston Business Growth, a business coaching firm that works with leadership teams and companies to help them grow.

She says employees want to work for companies that prioritize culture and development.

“What are you going to offer me? What are the conditions of work? How are you going to train me?” Those are just some of the things on employees’ mind when looking for new opportunities, she says.

Thompson, who has been coaching companies through this period of unprecedented competition, says employers need to focus on “the people things.”

“You really have to sell your company, you have to know your company values, you have to look for people who are aligned with your company values,” she said. “If you want to be a growing company, you really have to focus in on the basics.”

Though the pandemic has been very difficult for small business owners like Atkinson and Karian, Thompson believes they’ll come out on top when it all said and done.

They’ll realize how valuable good employees are, and “I think you’ll end up with a much more balanced workplace.”

Some of the sectors hit hardest by the Great Resignation has been leisure and hospitality, retail, construction and manufacturing. But despite the record number of quits, the latest DOL data indicates hiring moving in the right direction in nearly every major sector.

“It might get worse before it gets better, but I’m very optimistic for the future,” said Karian, Fiorella’s owner.

In part three of the Where are the Workers? series, Kerry Kavanaugh takes a look at what leaders in Washington are doing to ease the staffing crisis.

She sits down one-on-one with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to discuss federal initiatives. That’s Wednesday night on Boston 25 News at 10.

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