Local employers are having difficulties filling vacant positions.
Yes, it’s true. Even with thousands of people out there desperately looking for work as Indiana’s current unemployment rate of 8.3 percent lags a bit behind the national rate of 7.6 percent.
There are two key reasons why workers and employers in our area are not connecting – job seekers either don’t know where to look for an available position, or they don’t have the skills necessary to succeed, said Linda Woloshansky, President and CEO of The Center of Workforce Innovations (CWI), which is a catalyst for community and business investment that builds and aligns workforce, education and economic development strategies to accelerate growth.
CWI also serves as the regional operator of the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board (NWIWB), whose mission is to mobilize and integrate the leadership, services and resources of the community to support workforce development and the WorkOne system.
“The good news is that we know there are jobs out there,” she said. “When it comes to jobs in northwest Indiana, it’s important to know how the supply and demand are lining up. It’s all inter-dependent. Otherwise, you have employers importing people or exporting jobs.”
CWI’s recently released “Indiana Career Connect Labor Market Analysis” highlights of the “Top Ten Occupational Groups with the Highest Labor Market Disparities” based on data collected in Jasper, LaPorte, Lake, Newton, Porter, Pulaski and Starke counties. From highest to lowest, career opportunities – labor markets with an oversupply of job openings - include transportation and material moving; production; food preparation and serving related; sales and related; and farming, fishing and forestry. Similarly, job development opportunities – labor markets with an oversupply of job seekers – include office and administration support; construction and extraction; education, training and library; protective service; and life, physical and social science.
When it comes to occupational groups with the most job openings, production is number one followed by transportation and material moving.
“An important goal supported by the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board is to help those who are seeking employment to align their technical and soft skills with the abilities sought by employers,” Woloshansky said. “In transportation for example, we have recently invested a significant amount of money and attention to develop people for them. Historically, we have found that this is a tough occupation for people to really stick with it. There are many challenges, starting with the fact that many young people who are just starting their families don’t want to be on the road overnight. We are finding that some retired folks are exploring it as an option. They find it can be a good fit when a husband and wife enjoys traveling together.”
Albert Cook, Four Star Transportation’s East Chicago Terminal Manager, currently manages 31 drivers but can use up to 50 for a job that pays an average of $950 per week. The problem is that he has a tough time finding people to stick with the job. Recently, he hired nine new drivers – so far only six have stayed.
“We explain everything very carefully to all our potential employees,” he said. “We’re a flatbed trucking group that services the region – the majority of our business is conducted in a 500 mile radius of the terminal. On average, we run about 50 loads per day from the terminal, and typically it’s no more than a 200-mile trip, half of our drivers won’t go more than 150 miles in a day. They are sleeper trucks, and our drives will spend two to three nights per week overnight in them. We always try to have them at home as often as possible – no more than three' nights a week on the road – and they are always home on weekends.”
So why do so many people start out strong and then stop returning phone calls from the dispatcher?
“I hear all kinds of stories,” Cook said. “I’ve been in the transportation industry for over 30 years so I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all. I tell them it comes down to basic communication, and that I have an open door policy. We just need them to meet us part way. The biggest problems we face are No.1 getting them in the door, No. 2 they have no experience on their application or they are an insurance coverage risk because of a poor driving record and No. 3 people want to stay close to home.”
When it comes to employees, Cook simply asks that they show up on time, do what they are asked to do and fill out their paperwork.
“We are held to a standard by our customers,” he said. “When our employees do a good job, we both grow. The better job they do, the more business we get and the more money they earn. It’s very, very, very simple – respect the job. Whenever there’s a problem, let’s figure out what the issue is and let’s fix it.”
Like Cook, Calumet Abrasives’ Human Resource Manager Jessica Burton has had difficulties finding entry-level employees for most of the seven and a half years she’s been on the job.
“We’re an employee-friendly, family-owned business that promotes from within, so we find ourselves bringing in a lot of different people all the time,” she said. “The company has been manufacturing premium high-performance abrasive cutting wheels for all types of industrial applications since 1945. The precision of our custom-engineered products along with our ability to provide unique solutions for our customers is what sets Calumet Abrasives apart from the competition.”
That means employees must be well-versed in their particular role, whether they are a specialized machine operator in the production facility or just getting started with company in shipping.
“The majority of our machine operators started out in another area,” Burton said. “We’ve found that what we do here is not an even match with the experience of machine operators in other facilities. So we train people who demonstrate a good work ethic – they need to be here, be on time and have the right attitude when it comes to getting along well with others – as well as the ability to do repetitive work fast.”
Because the owner has seen a change in the type of training young people are receiving - or not receiving in this case as shop classes have been cut from many high school curriculums – Calumet Abrasives has partnered with Ivy Tech to offer employees the opportunity to earn a certificate customized by the company.
“The owner really is big on trying to give back to the employees,” Burton added. “We built a special classroom and paid for the program to be developed. We also pay an instructor to come out for each session, and we pay the employees their wages while they are learning. Our first group of 10 employees – a mixture between our two shifts - just finished the 40-hour program, which focuses on industrial safety and the importance of measurement and calibration. We’re already starting to see changes in the way they are thinking, especially as far as safety. Our second session is now underway. It’s a great benefit for employees, the extra knowledge and skills gained through the certificate program will help them even if they don’t stay here.”
That’s just one of the ways Calumet Abrasives demonstrates its understanding of the important role production plays in our local economy.
“A lot of times schools are geared to college and the service industry,” Burton said. “We’re very excited to be a part of the Ready NWI initiative at Highland High School this year, where we will be interacting with students and giving them a chance to come out and see what we do here. We need to get more people of all ages excited about the job prospects in local manufacturing.”
That’s an enlightened employer who creates programs with the hope of getting some value out of them, but also understands someone else will too, according to Woloshansky.
“These are great examples of how we are trying to engage people and help them understand the opportunities available,” she said. “The jobs that are most in demand are the economic drivers that will create wealth for the communities of northwest Indiana. The challenge then is to make training available so people can get into those jobs.”
That’s why the research, advocacy, education and community connections supported by CWI are important.