Noncollege workers see COVID-related gains in the job market

A shuffling of the job market resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has benefited some workers without college degrees, while leaving employers wondering how to attract and maintain all workers to fill vacant positions within their organizations.

Keith Wardrip, community development research manager at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, on Thursday shared “A Moment of Opportunity: The Covid-Era Job Market for Noncollege Workers,” during a virtual Berks Alliance Community Forum event attended by more than 50 people. Following his presentation, five regional business leaders shared what their companies are doing to meet workforce challenges.

Job openings for workers without college degrees — whom Wardrip refers to as “noncollege workers” — are at historically high levels. There were twice as many job openings for this group of employees in January 2022 than there were in January 2018, he said, due to several factors.

Research shows that employers tend to adjust their hiring requirements depending on the state of the job market. When workers are plentiful and job openings relatively few, requirements — including educational requirements — get tightened. When workers are scarce, however, as they became in the wake of the pandemic, employers typically loosen requirements.

“If you have 20 applicants for every job you can be a whole lot pickier than if you only have one or two,” Wardrip said.

As the number of job openings climbed to an all-time high in June 2021, employers scurried to fill them by offering hiring incentives, lowering requirements and providing additional training. Wage growth for lower-wage earners rose at higher rates than for those earning higher wages, and employers increasingly looked to hire noncollege workers to fill decent paying, middle-range jobs that previously may have required a college degree.

“That opened the door for some noncollege workers to get jobs that wouldn’t have been available to them before,” Wardrip said.

That hiring shift, coupled with historic numbers of people quitting their jobs and other factors, caused lower-wage jobs in the food and hospitality industries to remain unfilled, forcing employers in those areas to also offer hiring incentives and higher wages that caused economic strain in many areas of employment. Some industries, however, such as warehousing and utilities, have experienced gains in economic conditions.

Nic Thomas, workforce and community development liaison at West Reading-based Gage Personnel, was one of five business representatives who shared their perspectives regarding workforce issues and hiring concerns. He concurred with Wardrip’s findings, saying the report validates concerns that Gage, which provides staffing and professional solutions for businesses, had even prior to the pandemic. While finding workers to fill open positions had been difficult in 2018 and 2019, it has become increasingly difficult since the start of the pandemic.

“Things were tight pre-pandemic, and we’re feeling it even tighter now,” Thomas said. “The pandemic just created more layers to what we had already been seeing.”

Sharon Spangler, director of workforce and recruiting at East Penn Manufacturing, Lyons Station, agreed that staffing problems have been exacerbated since the onset of COVID-19.

“I’ve seen a lot of recruiting trends over the years, but these last two years have been extremely difficult,” she said. “We’re continuing to see a shortage of skilled labor.”

She said East Penn is focusing on worker retainment by increasing wages and shift differentials and providing training to enable employees to move into higher positions.

Ted Fries, vice president of human resources at EnerSys Inc., Bern Township, a battery manufacturer with global operations, assured participants that labor shortages are not confined to the United States.

“We’re seeing these labor issues everywhere,” Fries said. “This is a global problem.”

He explained that EnerSys is addressing a scarcity of hourly workers by focusing on being “the employer of choice,” which entails creating a welcoming and safe environment, offering competitive pay and employing other measures to attract employees. Salaried employees can decide whether to work virtually, in person or in a hybrid work situation, a choice that has helped the company retain upper-level workers.

Other business representatives who participated: Luke Eshbach, director of workforce analytics at Penske Transportation Solutions, Green Hills, and Stacey Miller, director of human resources at Reading-based Reading Truck, also expressed concerns regarding employee hiring and retention and related issues.

Wardrip is working to gather additional information regarding hiring and employment issues and is looking for input from business owners or hiring professionals. Anyone interested is encouraged to fill out an intake form, available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/F9KC3N7.

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