Work to Do: Employee shortages touch nearly every northern Michigan industry

In a typical year, summer is peak hiring time in northern Michigan with more jobs available than there are workers to fill them. Indeed, in recent years, many local employers have begun relying on non-local labor – ranging from college students to foreign workers – to meet their substantial seasonal hiring needs.

Summer 2021 poses unique challenges for these businesses, three of whom we touched base with – a retailer, a hotel and a construction trades company – to find out where things stand and how they are planning for a summer season that could feasibly be slow, incredibly busy, or anywhere in between.

Cherry Republic

At Cherry Republic, HR Director Nicole Agruda says the company is utilizing every avenue possible to fill spring and summer positions at its Traverse City, Glen Arbor, Charlevoix and Empire locations. That cover-all-the-bases approach includes targeting prospective employees from every age group – from high school students starting their first jobs, to retirees who want to work a few hours a week – as well as a variety of programs aimed at drawing workers to northern Michigan from outside the area.

In past summers, Cherry Republic has relied, in part, on foreign labor to staff its stores, bringing workers to the region through a J-1 visa program. J-1 visas are intended for individuals from other countries who wish to take part in work-and-study-based exchange and visitor programs in the U.S.

Agruda says 2020 and 2021 have been difficult in securing J-1 visas due to the pandemic, ultimately prompting Cherry Republic to put the entire program on pause for the time being.

The retailer is focusing its efforts elsewhere to fill employment gaps, using platforms like CoolWorks, a website dedicated to helping job seekers find summer jobs “in great places”; and Workampers, which links employers with people who travel the country and work as they go, to hire out-of-town talent. Cherry Republic has made investments in recent years to provide housing for seasonal employees, with 30 beds available to non-local hires for summer 2021.

Cherry Republic is also doubling down on its connections within the education sector, growing its relationships with Northwest Educational Services (North Ed, formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District) and Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) to promote job opportunities to area high school and college students. Agruda says those educational links are constantly expanding to target new demographics and geographic areas.

For instance, Cherry Republic is starting to work with elementary schools “to demonstrate the connection between education, businesses, and the workforce” to students at younger ages. The business is also encouraging North Ed employees to reach out if they are interested in summertime employment when schools aren’t in session.

As for widening the geographic radius of hiring efforts, Agruda says Cherry Republic is in the process of forging connections with other schools in the state – including Grand Valley State University, Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University – that might draw more college-age candidates. Already, Cherry Republic has a partnership with Holland’s Careerline Tech Center that offers hands-on experience to the school’s culinary students. Students enrolled in the NMC culinary school have the same opportunity, with those jobs located at Cherry Republic’s restaurant – the Cherry Public House – in Glen Arbor.

Finally, Agruda says Cherry Republic is staying COVID-cautious with concepts like drive-up job fairs.

“Participants can pre-register, choose an appointment time, and simply drive up to the designated location,” Agruda explained. “One of our staff will interview them on the spot. We are planning for some drive-up job fairs in Glen Arbor, Traverse City and Charlevoix this spring.”

Shanty Creek Resorts

At Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire, Chris Hale – vice president of sales and marketing – says the big question mark for the summer 2021 season is just how busy it will prove to be.

The spring/summer 2020 season, Hale explains, was something of a roller coaster ride, including both “the worst of the worst” stretch he can recall at the resort (April, May, and June) and a bounce-back from July through October that he calls “insanely great for leisure travel, golf and recreation.”

The stumbling block for Shanty Creek last year – and for other large resort hotels in northern Michigan – was the dearth of business travel. While leisure travel rallied quickly after initial COVID-19 closures last spring, the business conference market cratered and has yet to rebound. And as big as golf trips and family getaways proved to be last summer, Hale says they weren’t enough to make up for the lost business group bookings.

“Unfortunately, for the bigger resorts – folks like us, Grand Traverse Resort and Crystal Mountain – when you lose Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday because all of your conferences go away, it’s really hard to fill those with the leisure travelers,” Hale said.

At the moment, Shanty is still cancelling group bookings that can’t move forward due to state capacity restrictions and overall COVID risk. When the TCBN caught up with Hale, the resort had just cancelled “a significant sized (conference)” for an early March weekend. Still, Hale says there are “plenty of people who are chomping at the bit to get those things back in their lives,” to the point where he is hopeful that business travel will start bouncing back in the second half of this year as vaccination rates climb and government restrictions ease. If that happens, it could combine with a still-strong leisure travel market to restore pre-pandemic levels of business for Shanty Creek.

“If we can do 30-40% of the number of conferences that are on the books – either as they were already planned for this year, or as they’re rescheduled from last year – and also have the leisure travel that we had last year, it should be a really nice season,” he said.

Of course, a return to pre-pandemic business levels means a return to pre-pandemic hiring needs. While Hale expects some areas of hiring will remain challenges – specifically housekeeping positions and early or late-season jobs on the golf course – he also says the resort has proven strategies for drawing workers to the area through college internships and H2-B or J-1 visa programs.

The ace in the hole? Housing.

“We have nearly 40 different lodging units that, over the years, we’ve just devoted to housing,” Hale said. “And by providing housing for folks, especially the college interns and the internationals, we’ve become a desirable place for people to come and fill those seasonal jobs.”

As conversations about affordable housing in northern Michigan have escalated in recent years, Hale says Shanty’s housing programs for out-of-town workers have grown more and more successful at attracting seasonal labor to the area. Free lodging, plus a flexible schedule and free transportation through the hotel’s shuttle service, allows seasonal employees an enticing way to enjoy a summer in northern Michigan. It’s a piece of the hiring puzzle and overall company culture that Hale refers to simply as “lifestyle” – and it’s a growing determinant for filling seasonal jobs.

Windemuller

Founded in 1954 as an electrical contractor, Windemuller has since grown into a full-fledged construction trades contractor, offering technical and design services for electrical, automation, communications and IT, and outdoor utilities. Like every other business in the construction trades industry, Windemuller ground to a halt last spring when stay-at-home orders went into effect.

A year later, HR Manager Allyson Baumgard says it’s almost as if that pandemic pause never happened. With a packed project pipeline and a busy summer on its way, the company has hired and onboarded 20 employees already this year, and is looking to hire more.

“It’s still an employee’s market,” Baumgard said of the construction industry. “There’s more need and open spots than there are people to fill them.”

Experienced employees tend to be the biggest need, Baumgard said.

“We could definitely fill a first-year apprentice position, no problem,” she said. “It’s the third- or fourth-year apprentice and journeyman positions, those more specialized areas (that are hard to fill). It’s hard to find good, talented employees right now.”

Getting strategic and creative with hiring is absolutely a priority for Windemuller at the moment. In early March, the company hosted its third annual Women in Construction event, which was a Zoom-based panel conversation (pictured). The virtual event drew more than 200 people.

Windemuller’s top priority at the moment is focusing its energies on nourishing its existing talent.

“The most important thing right now is being able to retain our employees,” Baumgard explained. “Because everyone else is looking at your talent pool to fill their talent pool. So it’s about looking internally to make sure that our employees are happy, and to make sure that our wages are in line with the market, or better.”

Those talent retention efforts also play into another centerpiece strategy of Windemuller’s recruitment protocol: a robust employee referral bonus program.

Step one, Baumgard says, is making sure employees feel happy and well-compensated enough to speak highly of working at Windemuller to friends, family, or contacts in the industry. Step two is offering hefty referral bonuses to employees who recommend recruits that Windemuller ends up hiring.

Once upon a time, Windemuller’s referral program paid a flat fee of $250 for every successful referral. Now, the program has multiple tiers, to add more value and motivation behind referrals that lead to the hiring of more skilled – and thus harder to find – professionals. While a referral that sparks the hire of a first-year apprentice is just $100, a successful account manager referral pays out $1,500, and a professional engineer referral is worth $5,000.

“We have found some really great candidates that way,” Baumgard said. “Electrical engineers, automation department engineers, journeymen, foremen … we have some great hires from our employees’ referrals. I think they must think it’s a great program, because they’re still using it.”

 

Down, But Not Out: Employment stats and insights from Northwest Michigan Works!

Even compared to past recessions, 2020 was a volatile year for the job market. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic sent unemployment levels to Great Depression-level highs. Last April, nationwide unemployment hit 14.8%, while Michigan’s jobless rate spiked to 24%, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Since then, things have rebounded significantly, with almost every job sector seeing its own piece of the recovery. Unemployment rates still aren’t down to pre-pandemic lows: Michigan’s rate was 7.5% by the end of 2020, compared to 6.7% for the United States.

According to Michelle Socha of Northwest Michigan Works! – which collaborates with local employers to help them hire new people – almost every sector in northern Michigan is in need of workers. When asked to highlight a few hot jobs in the region, Socha listed industries that include manufacturing, healthcare, energy, transportation, logistics, construction trades, hospitality, retail, agriculture and education.

“Employers are raising wages to draw candidates, and offering bonuses, more company perks and even in some cases, offering workforce housing opportunities,” Socha said, adding that apprenticeship programs to teach workers key skills – from winemaking to manufacturing technology – have also become more common.

The hot job market speaks to a prediction that experts made early on the pandemic: that the COVID-triggered recession would be fleetingly severe, but wouldn’t have the long tail of something like the Great Depression or the Great Recession.

That prediction of a quicker recovery is bearing out in most Michigan metrics. For instance, private sector payroll positions plummeted from 3.84 million in February 2020, to 2.82 million in April 2020. By the end of the year, the number was back up to 3.4 million.

In some industries, COVID job losses have now been almost entirely erased. In construction, Michigan started 2020 with 180,600 jobs and shed almost half of them at the start of the pandemic, dipping to 98,200 by April. As of December, the number had rebounded to 175,000-plus construction jobs. Summer hiring is likely to close remaining job gaps in construction and many other industries.

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