On a Thursday morning before the noon hour lunch rush began, Holly Fortier sat down to finalize the upcoming work week schedule for her staff members at Arby’s.
While it’s one of the many weekly tasks she completes as the manager of Arby’s restaurant in Mitchell, it’s become one of the most challenging functions of her job, given the shortage of employees available.
“It’s more difficult now, because there are less people wanting to work but at the same time wanting more money,” Fortier said. “It seems like this problem is everywhere right now. I’ve definitely felt the worker shortage here on my end.”
Fortier is hardly alone in having to make do with a short-staffed crew, as many local employers across nearly every industry in the city of Mitchell are scrambling to fill jobs.
As of the July report from the South Dakota Department of Labor, there are 661 job openings in Davison County, which includes the rural towns of Ethan and Mount Vernon.
In reporting this story, The Daily Republic sought to check the validity of that job number, if possible, and also look at where workforce issues stand near the end of the decade, when it has been one of the region’s top issues.
To check the pulse of the local job market, The Daily Republic reached out to find an accurate number of job openings by contacting some of the city’s largest employers, contacting more than 20 of the city’s largest businesses. The survey didn’t net a high response rate, but the handful of companies that responded had dozens of open jobs.
The 661 job openings in Davison County was the lowest number reported in July since 2014, which is when job openings began to climb above 500 openings in this decade. It’s also the lowest number of job openings for any month since February 2014. Just one month earlier, in June, Davison County had 727 openings.
The numbers are a one-month snapshot in time but listed job openings in 2019 in Davison County have been down compared to 2018 each month this year.
According to Lori Essig, regional workforce coordinator for the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, the issue remains as prevalent as ever, and several Mitchell employers who are looking to expand their operations have been hindered by the worker shortages.
Essig said manufacturing, retail and healthcare are among the local employers who are experiencing the most shortages. As for what’s causing the shortages, Essig said there are a multitude of complex variables impacting the high number of job openings needing to be filled.
“We’ve got businesses in Mitchell who are unable to expand,” Essig said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “And although some of them would like to expand, their hands are tied until they confidently know that they can hire 50 to 100 people.”
Of the job openings that were recorded by the Department of Labor, healthcare and social assistance is the sector which faces the largest worker shortage with 139 job openings in Mitchell. The next closest sector is retail with 93 openings, followed by manufacturing with a total of 90 openings.
“Almost all of our communities in South Dakota are struggling with workforce issues, regardless of size,” Essig said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it pits us against each other, because we’re all trying to sell our own community by having more attractive jobs to offer.”
The Department of Labor calculates the job openings through advertised jobs that are collected from employer sites, hospitals, nonprofits, local and federal government agencies, schools and universities, recruiter sites, newspapers, volunteer sites, and other public, private, and state job boards.
Factors contributing to the worker shortage
While Mitchell’s unemployment rate is relatively lower than the national average -- which is at 2.7 as of July -- there’s a catch to the statistic, Essig said.
“Experts would tell you that a healthy unemployment rate is about 4.5 percent, because that means employers have a solid choice among people seeking work, while people who are looking for work still have good choices in where they want to work,” Essig said, noting the 4.5 percent unemployment rate creates a better balance. “Chances are there are employers in Mitchell having to hire workers who aren’t exactly qualified.”
While some employers are relatively new to dealing with an increased number of job openings, Avera Queen of Peace Hospital is all too familiar with the challenge. According to Rita Lemon, human resources officer at Avera Queen of Peace, there are roughly 26 job openings as of now. The Avera Queen of Peace employs approximately 700 people. Lemon said the shortage can sometimes be most felt at both entry-level and advanced positions.
“Unemployment is very low and it’s hard to find not only quality workers, but sometimes even to get people applying is hard,” Lemon said. “Because our workforce is comprised of medical professionals licensed to perform duties, the search for qualified individuals often means we are taking from another healthcare employer.”
The lack of daycare options a community has to offer also plays a significant role in detracting job seekers, especially those from out-of-state, Essig said. Mitchell falls into that category in comparison to similar-sized communities in other states, according to Essig.
“Not having enough daycare options can make the difference in whether a family or a single parent can actually accept a job that one may want to take in Mitchell,” Essig said.
In addition, Essig pointed to Mitchell’s lack of affordable housing options as another factor that is contributing to the workforce shortage.
Attracting a young workforce
Bridging a gap between education and the workforce is a vital step for motivating more future labor participation in the state, Essig said.
“We have to start connecting education and career opportunities so they know what is available for them when they are entering the workforce,” Essig said, suggesting the work and education connection begin as early as sixth grade.
Terry Sabers, co-president of Muth Electric, has witnessed how vital connecting education with one of Mitchell’s larger employers is for filling job openings.
“The pay and benefits keep improving, and we have quite a number of our field people who are pushing $80,000 to $100,000 per year, but we still have shortages,” Sabers said. “We need more quality, hard-working electricians and trades people, and sharing what we offer at Muth Electric is very important to attract fresh graduates.”
With a total of 12 office locations outside of Mitchell, including North Dakota and Nebraska, Muth Electric has been able to seize on growing its business despite the existing workforce shortage. With roughly 390 employees, Sabers said the company is seeking to fill 10 openings.
In addition, Sabers said Muth Electric’s partnership with trade schools and technical colleges has aided in attracting a younger demographic into their workforce. Muth Electric has been implementing additional benefits and perks to offer employees $2,000 per year to help pay off student loan debt post-college, along with benefiting from the Build Dakota Scholarship program, which offers scholarships for students who commit to living and working in the state, and in their field of study, for three years following graduation.
Kevin Hubbard, who is Performance Pet Products’ manager in Mitchell, has also been utilizing MTI as a channel for tapping into attracting the younger age demographic of future employees. According to Hubbard, there are 15 openings for which the pet food production plant is actively seeking to hire. It’s common for the facility to have roughly 15 openings at this time of year, Hubbard said.
“We have been working with MTI as much as possible, because they always have a solid crew of graduates with industry experience,” Hubbard said. “For us to stay competitive in Mitchell’s manufacturing industry, we need to look toward the future to continue growth.”
Job recruiting, advertising approaches
In light of the ongoing worker shortages, many local companies have focused their efforts on the job recruiting process, while taking a deeper look at which methods are effective.
Drew Krohmer, project manager at Krohmer Plumbing in Mitchell, said the company he’s worked for over the past decade has become creative with how they list job postings. From social media job posts to working with Mitchell High School, he credits some of the company’s job recruiting tactics for avoiding significant shortages.
Taking a more traditional route, Krohmer Plumbing staked a large sign into the lawn of its business office. Seamlessly, Krohmer said this simple method has produced results, as more job seekers will stop in the office to request and submit an application.
“It’s interesting to see which methods of job posting bring candidates in more than others, and I believe the big sign in front of the office has landed a lot of employees,” Krohmer said. “The jobs are out there. The motivation to pursue them has to be there as well.”