Texas business feels crunch of worker shortage. Here's why it may be a good problem to have




  • In Business
  • 2022-10-07 17:42:57Z
  • By Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

I recently woke up to an email from a local bakery I have patronized that read: "Due to staff shortages, we will be closed today."

It wasn't an unusual communication, especially from a small business that operates with just a few employees.

People get sick. Emergencies happen. Businesses adjust - they always have.

But this wasn't the first such email I'd received from this particular shop in recent months, and it wasn't the only business I knew to be experiencing regular staffing problems.

"Help wanted" signs are a fixture of nearly every storefront around town.

Some of the local shops I frequent have even taken to social media to plead with patrons to "come join our team!"

When mailing a letter the other day, I noticed that even the post office has a "We're hiring" sign prominently displayed at its counter.

Apparently, even secure government jobs are remaining unfilled.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in September was 3.5%, about where it was before the pandemic.

In Texas, it was slightly higher, at 4.1 percent (in August, the last available stat).

We know that unemployment spiked during COVID's initial wave as businesses, hampered by state restrictions, were forced to close. Some never came back.

The pandemic also prompted many workers who were seeking improved work-life balance and flexibility to quit their jobs, or those who were on the cusp of retirement to bow out of the workforce early - the "Great Resignation," it was called.

That shrunk the pool of available workers, at least in the short-term.

But businesses came back, and hiring rates suggest that many of those workers were eventually re-hired elsewhere.

So, why does the worker shortage seem to persist?

To the optimist, that question might be a solution in search of a problem - at least for the Lone Star State.

"Texas is killing it with job creation," a friend who runs an HVAC business in Waco recently told me.

His company has been struggling to find the skilled labor it needs to meet the massive increase in business it's enjoyed the last several years.

Like the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Waco has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Indeed, Texas has become a beacon for Americans fleeing more expensive, more restrictive and politically unappealing states.

It's also leading the nation in job growth as startups and the gig economy abound and as companies relocate within its business-friendly borders.

Texas is now home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other state in the U.S.

But even as Texas' population growth is outpacing that of the U.S. on the whole, job creation is still exceeding the labor market.

Chris Strayer, executive vice president of economic development for the Fort Worth Chamber, says this is a good problem to have.

"DFW is a growing market," he told me. "We're a hub for the central U.S. and full of opportunities." And workers are following the jobs to North Texas.

Rising prices and inflation, too, are sending people - some of whose families had learned to live on a single income during the pandemic - back into the labor market.

Still, he acknowledged, it's tough for some businesses, particularly those in tertiary industries, to find help.

He emphasized the need for businesses to focus on building the workforce of tomorrow, by getting involved in K-12 schools, improving job training and readiness programs, and identifying under-employed workers for specialized skill development.

The workers are there, he said, especially for those businesses that are looking and accessing worker development resources.

But that doesn't solve the immediate labor force shortage. As my Waco friend put it: "Right now, we need bodies."

That might mean that businesses need to take a chance on unskilled workers and get them on-the-job training to develop the requisite skill sets - a boon to workers.

It's hard to know, of course, how the cloud of inflation and massive government spending will affect the labor market in the years to come.

There are already reports of increased costs forcing large companies to "get skinny."

Alas, the only thing in Texas that seems skinny is the labor force.

"We're doing a lot better than second-tier labor markets," Strayer said. "It looks hard here, but they're really struggling."

Right now, Texas still seems like a pretty good place to live and work - even if it means you have to wait a few days to get your kids' favorite bread.

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