Varying factors 'catapulted' area into labor shortage

·9 min read

Companies, unions, the city government and workers in Oak Ridge are reacting to the high demand, but short supply of employees to fill various positions.

Krystal in Oak Ridge is hiring for all positions.
Krystal in Oak Ridge is hiring for all positions.

Here are some local leaders' thoughts on the current situation and the way forward.

Joy Wilson
Joy Wilson

The scope of the issue

Joy Wilson, senior vice president and chief administrative officer for ORNL Federal Credit Union, said there were 40 to 50 positions open at one time in 2021 at ORNL FCU, above the usual number of 20 to 25 positions. However, she said the number was back down to about 24 by early this month. She said the shortages were primarily in entry level jobs, but also in other positions.

Brad Rayson, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 205, which represents Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge employees, said the last information he had received showed 175 openings at the hospital.

"We have seen too many veteran employees leave and not be replaced. This has caused a significant loss of experience and has increased the burden on those who are still there. At some point this could affect patient care," he said.

Brad Rayson, president of SEIU Local 205 attends a rally for the union at Methodist Medical Center.
Brad Rayson, president of SEIU Local 205 attends a rally for the union at Methodist Medical Center.

However, Crystal Jordan, Methodist Medical Center's manager of marketing and business development, said MMC had made "significant progress" in adding new employees. She said since January 2021, MMC added more than 230 new employees. A total of 13 new hires began work earlier this month, and another 15 new hires are slated to begin their employment within the next month. Job offers are in process or already accepted for 16 additional new employees with targeted start dates in February and March, she said.

Restaurants like Applebee's, Panera Bread, Wendy's and Krystal in Oak Ridge have "help wanted" signs, showing the worker shortage's impact on that industry as well.

"We have experienced some labor shortages and could always use more employees, but we have also been able to maintain the staff we have had since opening," said Amanda Galbraith, manager with Volunteer Restaurant Concepts, which has the Chicken Salad Chick franchise in Oak Ridge.

However, some restaurants haven't felt as pressed. Speaking to Altrusa International of Oak Ridge members last Wednesday during an online meeting, Anne Holland and Jim Hynes, the owners of Bud's Farmhouse Coffee Shop in Manhattan Place, said they are well-staffed. Acknowledging problems faced by some during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said they'd been able to keep employees and "scrounge up supplies."

Lauren Gray, the city of Oak Ridge's senior communications specialist, said competition with restaurants and retail offering higher wages in response to the employee shortage has negatively impacted the city's ability to hire pool lifeguards and park maintenance.

Christine Michaels, president of Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, told The Oak Ridger that worker shortages may within a few years even hit government contractors. Several months ago, she said, some of the "key government contractors" were commenting that they're already planning for how to replace positions that may come open three to five years from now due to retirements.

"They are working with our colleges to establish a pipeline for talent in the degree areas they are seeking," she said.

Christine Michaels
Christine Michaels

What's driving it?

The people to whom The Oak Ridger spoke offered differing views on causes behind the hiring shortages.

"It appears to be a combination of the pandemic and higher wages elsewhere," Gray said, regarding reasons for the city's recruitment problems.

Wilson described the current job market trends as predating and outlasting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I absolutely do not think it’s going away,” she said.

“Before COVID, all of the industry journals and the workforce journals were speaking of a changing mindset toward work,” she added, explaining that ORNL FCU was already looking at how to address these issues before the pandemic.

COVID-19 “jumped us straightforward, head-first into what we knew was coming,” she said, adding it “catapulted us a little bit faster into what we thought was a five-year trajectory, and it just compressed that timeline into now.”

Wilson listed theories on these national trends, including people starting their own businesses, staying at home to look after children, or just pursuing other jobs.

Rayson had different ideas.

"I am not sure there is a labor shortage in Oak Ridge. I think it's more about workers wanting to be paid a living wage and to be respected on the job. If employers are willing to meet these needs, they will be able to retain the employees they have and recruit new employees," he said.

He also spoke about some hospital-specific issues.

"Healthcare workers at MMC and across the country have had to endure incredibly stressful working conditions during the pandemic. At MMC, everyone has risen to the challenge, but it has taken a toll," he said. "There is a combination of factors, but one that we hear most is that they don't feel valued and respected by management."

Jordan in her email, while acknowledging the pandemic and labor shortage pressure, pointed out that Covenant Health, Methodist Medical Center's parent company, got a Best-in-State employer award by Forbes Magazine in 2021.

Galbraith shared similar thoughts to Rayson.

"I feel like more people are ready to come back to work, but are looking for a job where they feel appreciated and wanted. They are looking for an ​environment that encourages them," she said. "I hear a lot of people complaining about not feeling appreciated, valued and wanted. They feel like a number and not an employee. Once employees feel they are ​appreciated and wanted and valued they usually stay. Once you get them in the door to interview you can usually keep them if the environment is right."

The Oak Ridge Outdoor Swimming Pool.
The Oak Ridge Outdoor Swimming Pool.

Solutions

"I think the staff shortage is hurting everyone at this point, but as managers and business owners, we must stay positive and find solutions with the employees that we do have," Galbraith said.

Galbraith said Chicken Salad Chick was starting employees at a higher wage. The restaurant is also offering medical, dental and optional vision coverage, free employee meals and a monthly attendance bonus.

Jordan focused on MMC's support for various training efforts to gain new employees long term and allow existing ones to level up. MMC's efforts include educational collaborations at Oak Ridge High School and Roane State Community College to help people get into nursing or other medical fields. Covenant Health’s Nurse Residency Program, Jordan stated, is designed to support new graduate nurses (RNs) through their first year of nursing.

"Every newly graduated RN hired is automatically placed into the program because we’re committed to helping nurses successfully transition from an educational setting to a fast-paced hospital environment," she said.

MMC is also a site for clinical rotations for medical students at Lincoln Memorial University, enabling them to gain practical experience as they work side by side with Methodist physicians in real-world medical situations. Also, employees who decide to pursue additional job-related clinical education in specific areas of need can get tuition reimbursement options.

However, Rayson said he did not believe the hospital's recruitment efforts have gone far enough.

"MMC says they are actively recruiting, but we haven't seen much results. In this area we have proposed higher wages for some positions to be more competitive," he said.

Similar to Methodist Medical Center, the city of Oak Ridge is offering free training as a way to retain workers.

"We are offering other benefits to outweigh the wages. For example, if someone goes through the lifeguard certification course with the city of Oak Ridge, we will pay for the costs of that course as long as they stay with the city for the entirety of a summer season or a particular period during the year," Gray stated. She also said the city will probably look at its wages when preparing the next budget.

Wilson spoke at length about many different solutions ORNL Federal Credit Union had used.

She said the credit union had implemented a hiring bonus of $1,000 in 2021. To qualify, employees have to be at ORNL Federal Credit Union for six months for the first $500 and an additional six months to get the next $500. Last year, the credit union reviewed starting pay, which Wilson said was common across other companies as well. Right now, she said, starting pay is $15 an hour.

She said the measure was “not just to attract, but to retain some talent.”

Also, she said the company had evaluated benefits. ORNL FCU, she said, had always had health, vision and dental benefits. However, she said, despite the increased costs of insurance across the globe, the credit union has not increased the price of benefits during the last two years for its employees.

Even before the pandemic, in 2020, ORNL FCU reviewed the company match on its 401K. The company added “taking care of business days" in addition to previously allowed paid time off and a hybrid work plan, she said.

In 2020, ORNL FCU did an emergency response plan with remote work, and in 2021 the company adopted what Wilson called a "true remote work strategy" to formalize what ORNL FCU practiced in 2020 with remote and hybrid work.

Remote work, Wilson said, has led to some changes.

“You might have people applying for those jobs from a much broader geographic area than you had before,” she said, since the individuals don't have to commute for the remote work. However, she said that while ORNL FCU has looked to expand recruitment to outside the county, it is "hesitant" to look outside the state of Tennessee.

“We’ve always been a very strong employer in the community. That goes back for decades. We’re just trying to remain so," she said.

Michaels offered a more out-of-the box solution: housing.

"I think our job market also reflects what’s happening with residency vs. commuting. Being able to live in Oak Ridge opens up a number of local job prospects for new residents who may hesitate working here if they have to deal with traffic concerns, or being too far from where their children are in school. The new developments coming on line I think will help alleviate this part of the job crunch," she said.

Michaels said other areas of Tennessee are looking at other types of workers who can fill positions and ways to attract them. These, she said, include hiring those released from incarceration, hiring high school students and putting mothers on shifts that correspond to school hours.

The Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, she said, is partnering with the Oak Ridge Human Resource Association to offer a human resources series of trainings every other month beginning in February to go over hiring tips and tricks, employee retention and a number of other problem-solving workshops for local businesses.

Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317 and follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Varying factors 'catapulted' area into labor shortage

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