CHAMPAIGN — The pandemic isn’t quite over, but it seems like almost every business is hiring — and many are having trouble finding workers.
“We have pretty much heard every day from an employer that they’re struggling to fill positions,” said Laura Weis, president of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce.
Champaign County’s unemployment rate has dropped from its high of 11 percent last April, but it still has a ways to go.
In March, it was 5 percent, above the pre-pandemic March 2020 unemployment rate of 2.9 percent.
“Everyone is hiring and fighting for all the same people,” said Cindy Somers, owner of Spherion Staffing.
They both said there’s a variety of reasons for the shortage.
“Every company is trying to figure out how to adjust to the high demand for workers and the low supply of workers,” Somers said. “We’re seeing increased pay rates and offering of sign-on bonuses and a variety of different tactics.”
Weis said many workers aren’t able to return to work yet, especially if they have kids still learning at home. Or they might not feel safe yet.
“We’re still in a pandemic, so I think what we’re seeing with individuals that are not in the workforce, that there are still pandemic-related barriers that are preventing them from taking jobs,” she said.
Weis also said there’s more women leaving the workforce, often because of COVID-19-related issues.
“Because some schools are not in session full time, they might not have the ability to leave during the day to pick their child up,” she said. “Or it’s caring for older parents. And the types of jobs that are available are not the types of jobs that lend themselves to remote working, so there is also some folks concerned about their own personal safety.”
At Dart Container Corp.’s facility in Urbana, there are 65 openings, spokeswoman Margo Burrage said.
According to Dart’s job board, maintenance mechanics can get a starting pay of $17.50 per hour and inspector packers are starting at $14.08 an hour.
“Like many employers, Dart is experiencing challenges hiring entry-level and skilled-trades positions,” Burrage said in an email. “Issues affecting our ability to hire include lack of child care or needing to be home for children attending school virtually, federal unemployment and stimulus payments, and general concern about working during a pandemic.”
At the Champaign Park District, Executive Director Joe DeLuce said hiring for summer positions started off slow this spring, but “finally started picking up.”
“We have over 100 applications for lifeguards,” he said. “So right now, we’re looking pretty good.”
The park district lowered its age requirement for lifeguards to 15, which DeLuce said helped ensure there were enough.
“Hopefully if they come on board and do a good job, they’ll be around the rest of their high school years and into college,” DeLuce said. “It also helps that we’re paying lifeguards $12.50 an hour.”
With the minimum wage at $11, DeLuce said it made sense to “pay ‘em a little more” than that.
“We felt $12.50 was worth the amount — you can’t put a price tag on safety,” he said.
The park district is still looking for summer day-camp leaders and staff for the concessions stand at the Sholem Aquatic Center, but “other than that, we’re looking good right now.”
To help businesses find employees, the local Chamber of Commerce is hosting a walk-up hiring event at its parking lot at 303 W. Kirby Ave., C. It will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 20 and feature 20 different businesses.
“Obviously given state mitigations, doing some sort of indoor event was not feasible,” Weis said. “But we have a parking lot that has the ability to accommodate employers and job seekers, so we decided to go ahead and try this out and see if it works.”
She encouraged job seekers to either bring 20 copies of their current resume or fill out a general application, which can be found at champaigncounty.org. The Chamber will be able to print copies if needed.
“We tried to go for a mix of employers,” Weis said.
Somers encouraged people who might be waiting to get into the job market to start looking now.
“If you wanted to work, it wouldn’t be hard to find a job,” she said. “Not everyone can work right now, but for those that want to and can and are able, we have jobs.”