Workers in demand
Bridgman, MI—On a windy, blustery day this March in Southwest Michigan, my wife Sharon and I decided to go out for brunch at our favorite pancake house in Benton Harbor. As we entered the parking lot at 10:30 a.m., I had a sinking feeling as there were no cars in the lot.
We went to the door and the lights were off. Based on the posted hours, the restaurant should have been open. A sign on the door read: "Sorry, closed today - will be open tomorrow". Although I knew better, I tried the door to no avail trying to convince myself our favorite server, Christina, would magically appear and have mercy on us. As the locked door resisted my four or five pulls, I screamed to myself, "Let us in!"
OK, time to move to Plan B. Bob Evans is just a short distance away and they have great pancakes and biscuits. We drove in the Bob Evans’ lot and thank goodness there were cars there.
After entering the lobby, we traversed to the host/check-in stand. We were the only customers in the lobby, and we could see some empty tables, so I thought we were home free. After more than a three-minute wait, finally, a team member saw us standing there. "Sorry, we're short-staffed today so the wait will be about an hour." An hour?!
Good grief, we're not going to wait that long. So, onto Plan C - the Deli and Bakery at Apple Valley Market in Berrien Springs.I first started buying goodies at the Apple Valley bakery back in the 70s. They had the most delicious glazed and raspberry-filled donuts back then and they are still as good today. And, their legendary Chinese Almond Cookies still have the same recipe and are as popular as ever. Plan C involved donuts, cookies, and their fabulous Freda's potato salad, which we would then take back to our apartment at Woodland Terrace in Bridgman.
Plan C was successful. However, our feeling of relief was dampened by a sign in AppleValley that said, "Due to a staffing shortage there will be no donuts on Sunday.” What? My beloved Apple Valley can't find enough souls to come in and make those fabulous donuts on Sunday.
We then reminisced about going to Evan Metzger's Daddy's Donuts in Tamuning, Guam, where the donuts were always delicious and fresh out of the fryer, and they were open every day.
Not having enough workers is not a problem limited to the Apple Valley Bakery. None of my favorite bakeries in the area have enough staff to be open more than five days a week. My new favorite bakery only has enough staff to be open four days a week. So now, depending on the day of the week, we are thinking about hoarding our favorite donuts.
I saw a story on the evening news about a restaurant in Connecticut that is experimenting with using robots to deliver ordered meals to tables.
The current staffing problems are not just with restaurants and bakeries.
The last three Target stores I've been in have not had one staffed check-out line open. I was required to utilize the self-serve check-out registers. Last fall, the local fruit farms here in Southwest Michigan didn't have enough help to harvest all the bumper crop of apples in the area.
The 17,000 or so migrant workers on temporary visas for the fruit season last year weren't enough to get the entire apple crop picked.
Some farms invited locals in to pick their own apples for free.
This labor shortage is not limited to Southwest Michigan; it is acute in most U.S. states.
Every store, hotel and business I see either has a sign up that says "Now Hiring", or they have employment applications sitting on tables or counters, with signs and promotions encouraging customers to consider employment there.
Is there anyone who isn't hiring?
Perhaps it's time to develop a new universal sign similar to the hotel signs that say Vacancy/No Vacancy, such as Open Positions/No Open Positions.
In my entire career, I've never seen such a hot labor market as exists today.
The difficulty in finding new employees, along with the cost of training new staff, has resulted in a new practice of "labor hoarding." It sounds incredible, but many businesses large and small, are now practicing some form of labor hoarding. The principle of this isn't really that different from my hoarding donuts.
I decided to look up how many jobs in the U.S. are unfilled and how many people in the U.S. are unemployed. It was shocking. There are over 10 million open jobs in the U.S., and about 6 million are currently unemployed. That means that there are more than one and a half-open jobs for every person unemployed.
Where are the 4 million workers going to come from?
If you're a retail store or restaurant, you can just reduce your hours. If you are a manufacturer, you can just get behind on your orders, or raise your prices, or both. If you're a trucking company, you can utilize less-experienced drivers and explore the development of driverless trucks. If you're a ride-sharing company, you can purchase and utilize driverless vehicles.
Unfortunately, there are business types that can't just cut back their operating hours. If you're a hospital and you don’t have enough nurses, what are you going to do? If you're an Assisted Living Community serving our aging population and you don't have enough caregivers, what are you going to do?
In my column next month, I will discuss what I believe should be done about this pickle we're in
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business in Bridgman, MI. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at email@example.com.