Special Report: Where did all the employees go?

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NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — Northwest Arkansas companies, like many across the country, are grappling with the labor shortage and many employers are offering extra incentives and perks to attract employees.

The pandemic has changed the way people work making some people rethink their careers and what they want out of a job. Rolf Wilkin, owner of Eureka Pizza, which has eight locations throughout NWA and the River Valley, has experienced this shortage firsthand.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years and this definitely the most challenging time,” Wilkin said.

No industry is immune to the problem, said Sheila Moss, president of the Northwest Arkansas Human Resource Association.

“Everybody’s feeling the pain,” Moss said. “It really isn’t specific to just manufacturing or health care that kind of thing is also happening in higher education, it’s, across the board.”

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research, said during the state of Northwest Arkansas report, that the labor shortage was a problem in NWA before COVID-19, but it’s only gotten worse.

“All of those issues have gotten exacerbated, but it’s not new to this region given how fast our growth has been coming out of the pandemic,” Jebaraj said.

According to the Northwest Arkansas Council, there are about 10,000 open jobs in the region.

Why is there such a shortage?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the Northwest Arkansas region is 2.2 percent for Sept. 2021. That’s compared to Arkansas’ unemployment rate for Oct. 2021 at 3.7 percent and the unemployment for the United States at 4.6 percent. Less unemployed people means a smaller pool of available workers for companies to hire from.

One common thought for the shortage during the pandemic was increased unemployment benefits. However, Jebaraj said there is little evidence to suggest that is the case.

“Don’t find very strong effects or very little effects at all, on the relationship between the unemployment benefits and the likelihood of returning to employment,” Jebaraj said.

Instead, a lot of it has to do with the changing workforce needs such as concerns of returning to work in light of COVID-19 and issues getting childcare.

“You’re asking them to come back into the workplace with a totally different set of ideas and how they want their family structures to run,” Moss said.

Some people are now only interested in working from home and thus are limited to selecting a job that allows them to do that full time.

“Those that were able to work remotely, sort of hit a reset button on their priorities,” Moss said.

The multitude of open jobs also allows those looking for employment to be pickier when selecting a position.

“People have a lot of choices, and it’s causing them to rethink their current positions and so then they are exploring opportunities and then moving around maybe a little more than they used to,” Moss said.

What comes next?

Moss said even though there are many open jobs in the region, she understands some people might feel like they still aren’t getting hired. She encourages people to cast a very wide net and keep an open mind. She also suggests checking out careersnwa.com that contains job listings in different sectors across the region.

Employers are adjusting to the new workforce needs of employees by offering new benefits and incentives such as increased pay, sign-on bonuses and the ability to work remotely. For example, Wilkin said he has increased pay for his employees and focused on creating a positive work environment, which Moss said is the key to attracting and retaining workers now.

“We’ve got to take action on what they tell us and let them help us set those goals and then help us meet them, that keeps them involved,” Moss said.

Joe Rollins, workforce director with NWA Council, said the council is working diligently to build up the workforce locally.

“Trying to develop that talent base, whether it’s entry-level, or even middle-skill development,” Rollins said. “Maybe you’re already working in a career that you love, maybe you need just a little bit of training or retooling to take that next position, we’re working closely with our post-secondary partners in the region.”

The NWA Council is also working to bring more people to the region to help fill those jobs as well.

“We’re always trying to inform the country, the world about who we are as a region, and we have a national outreach arm that helps tell the story about who we are,” Rollins said.

Jebaraj said it’s hard to predict when a labor shortage might end, but said it will be here for at least a few more years.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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