America is in recovery mode as the global pandemic nears an end. COVID-19 claimed over a half million lives throughout our country, cost millions of jobs, revealed a severe need for government assistance for both public and private sectors, and created a fear this generation has never seen. Now, we must deal with the side effects. That includes getting America and North Carolina back to work.
North Carolina should take a closer look at why there is a significant labor shortage for some industries over others. I’ve heard a few reasons why employers say they can’t find people to work: 1) Safety first. We’re still in a pandemic; 2) Workers need to supervise children with their online schooling; and 3) They receive more pay in unemployment benefits than actually working a job.
I want to offer a different perspective as a local small business owner.
In North Carolina, the common phrase among locally owned small businesses is not “I can’t find people to work,” but more “I can’t compete.” There’s a national outcry for a higher minimum wage - “Fight for 15” - and many small businesses are on board. However, this transition takes time. During the pandemic, most establishments in the service and hospitality industry were shut down, yet companies such as Amazon, big box stores, and national food chains thrived. Several of these companies intensified their labor recruitment to meet demand, allowing them to pay a much higher wage than normal. As a result, wages ranging from $14.00 to $18.50 have become the norm, as well as a leveraging tool for those exploring their re-entry into the job market.
While increased wages have been necessary, we need to make sure small businesses can drive those good quality jobs, and corporations don’t eat up market share just to drop wages later once they’ve killed all the small businesses in their market. There are actions small businesses can do to stay in the fight, compete with corporations, recruit and retain awesome team members, and drive a thriving and resilient economic recovery:
First, ride it out, if you can. The job market will eventually re-correct itself. As everyone, employers and job searchers alike, understand what the new normal looks like, we will be able to better plan and compete. People will eventually begin looking for jobs again.
Corporations may have millions of dollars, but small businesses have their community. Small businesses are the curators of culture throughout towns and cities all throughout North Carolina. We are a true reflection of those community members who keep us in business. There’s value in that and we must capitalize on it.
There may be an immediate labor shortage, but this is the perfect time to invest in your current staff and identify people who are serious about working in your field. Understandably, it’s extremely difficult to abruptly increase all staff to $15 an hour. However you build and enhance the culture of your workplace, help your staff see your vision beyond the now and invite them to buy in by contributing. While pickings are slim, there are gems out there who are looking to make a career move, professional advancement, or stability. And stability translates into longevity.
No one can truly live on an outdated minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Politicians are slow-rolling this issue, but small businesses should facilitate the transition to a living wage. Invest in your employees and create more good jobs that mean more customers across your community. Not only will you be a more competitive employer, it will also support a resilient long term recovery, keep money in the community, and take power away from the corporations likely looking for the next moment to depress wages.
The pandemic caused a culture disruption. We now have an opportunity to reshape the workforce to benefit each other, our communities and families.
Leonardo Williams is owner of Zweli’s Kitchen and Catering in Durham and is a member of the Editorial Board’s Community Advisory Board.