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Is Nation’s Labor Shortage Temporary Phenomenon Or Long-Term Issue?

John Ross

by John RossPresident and CEO of IGA

The news is filled with reports of America’s labor shortage. Liberals claim people aren’t working because labor rates are too low; conservatives contend that COVID stimulus has made it better to stay home and collect unemployment benefits.

But the arguments don’t fix the problem facing the grocery industry: There aren’t enough feet on the floor. And suppliers don’t have enough hands on the forklift or behind the wheel of a truck. 

Political or social feelings about the cause of the labor shortage don’t matter when owners and store managers are working 100 hours a week to fill in for understaffed departments. What really matters is how to fix it and how long it will last. 

In parts of the country, unemployment benefits resulting from COVID relief have legitimately given some people a disincentive to go back to work. But the grocery business did not lay off thousands of workers, as happened in restaurants. 

In fact, we have been hiring all along. If the issue is truly that some low-income workers make more on unemployment plus subsidy than taking a job, then the problem is temporary. When those funds run out, people will return to work. Simple. But emerging data suggest that it is way more complicated than that.


America’s state of fear

COVID is not over. For many people, fears of the infection, news of emerging strains coming from India and other countries and fears of vaccine side effects have them sitting at home. 

In reality, the grocery industry has done an incredible job of keeping associates safe. On an “hours-exposed-to-the-public versus percent-of works-infected” ranking – if such a thing existed – we likely would lead the American work force in safety.

If fear is one of root causes, then at least we know. And knowing, we can adjust recruiting.

Do we add the word “safe” to job postings? Are we talking about worker safety in recruiting materials and live interviews? 

If workers believe safety is important to owners and managers, then it is easier to recruit and retain them. 


Ripple effects

We must look at the workforce and all of the ways employees have been stressed. When schools were closed, many workers had to stay home with their kids. But now with summer here, many rely on daycare as a solution. 

Yet the daycare industry has been hit harder than others. Most states have a mandated child-to-caregiver ratio. If there’s not enough staff, they have to turn kids away. The crisis in that industry likely is hurting grocers’ ability to get two-income families or single parents back to work, especially this summer.

Retailers who are more flexible on schedules and understanding of the plight of families dependent on summer day care will be more attractive than those who are more rigid. 

Look in the mirror and ask if you are parent-friendly employer. Most family-owned retailers are but may not do a good job promoting it. Or they would like to be, but don’t know how. 

Turns out there are organizations that promote family / parent friendly workplaces. Visit brightbeginningsmc.org/how-to-become-a-family-friendly-employer/ and take the quiz. 


Rethinking recruiting as marketing

Think about all the energy that’s put into a weekly ad – the media buy, deals and in-store signage. Now imagine the effort put into recruiting. Big difference, huh?

The reality is that finding good people isn’t something new. We have been suffering with talent and labor shortages way before COVID and likely will suffer for a while. 

Part of the cause is pure demographics. Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers didn’t have as many kids as their parents. Long after the COVID unemployment subsidies and health crisis are gone, we still will be recruiting from a smaller entry level pool. 

That means, employers in the next decade will need to be savvy, cleverer and way more creative to attract people into retail. A couple of examples: 

Target shoppers, based on their passion food and grocery. “If you love our stores, we would love to hire you!” is a friendly way to recruit. Or a sign that says, “Join our team and share your love of wine every day.”

Target former restaurant workers. Moving from a high-stress, late-hour restaurant kitchen to a retail bakery or deli is a much better gig. Plus they will bring restaurant skills, a win-win for everyone. 

While it is true that the effects of COVID changed the world profoundly, what it did not change is the need to attract talent. Blaming disease or government won’t make for better recruiters. But learning how to improve recruitment marketing – to make stores and warehouses friendly places to work – will serve us well into the future. 

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Featured Photo PLMA Annual Private Label Trade Show
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
Chicago, Illinois
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