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VOL. 44 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 1, 2020

The elusive face of re-employment

Keeping ready, willing employees on hold for uncertain future is a tricky proposition

By Joe Morris

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When the effects of COVID-19 and the accompanying social distancing began to be felt in the state, unemployment was at near-historic lows.

Now, weeks after restaurants, retail stores and offices emptied, those figures have soared as tens of thousands of Tennesseans have been laid off or furloughed.

At the same time, some industries, such as logistics and grocery, have been hiring workers as quickly as possible to deal with unseen levels of consumer demand for home delivery and food.

And now, as state and local officials begin looking at easing restrictions on business operations, what will the job market look like? Will workers want to return to such close-proximity jobs as restaurant and retail work with no COVID-19 vaccine in sight, and with testing for the virus still not as widespread as health officials would like?

Or will the necessity of a paycheck trump safety concerns? What sectors will bounce back as quickly as they plummeted, and which ones will have a more gradual slope upward?

Predictions vary and are pegged to type of industry, as well as physical location and such evergreen concerns as a well-trained, available workforce, says Karen Wilhite, regional manager for Hire Dynamics, adding that the fate of newly hired workers for in-demand industries may also be unclear.

“The demand for retail and consumer goods contact centers, whether that is manufacturing or logistics, remains high because someone has to process, package and deliver the goods for those fast-emptying shelves,” Wilhite says. “For something like groceries, the need for more people now runs all the way through the supply chain from start to finish.

“Will they need all those people as things slow back down to a more normal pace? It’s hard to say.”

In mid-March, as awareness began to take hold of what a nationwide shutdown would look like, major employers such as Nissan began instituting rolling furloughs so they could evaluate the situation as it evolved, Wilhite adds, an approach adopted by many others so they could keep employees available and accessible for return.

“What I think most employers are doing is trying to do this week by week almost, so that when they can come back, they can do so quickly and with a vengeance,” she explains.

Tennessee jobs by the numbers

• 68,968: Unemployment claims filed the week of April 18

• 396,000: Unemployment claims filed in the last six weeks

• 400,000, or almost 6% of the state’s population: Tennesseans who filed unemployment claims since the COVID-19 shutdown began

Source: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce

“A lot of the clients we serve are setting dates, evaluating where we are and then setting new ones. We are working with them so that we know what’s going on in their industries and be ready to help them both now and over time as they ramp back up.”

That means keeping a workforce ready and waiting in the wings, a tricky proposition in a time when in-person recruiting is largely impossible. And while it’s almost impossible to remember now, a tornado tore through Nashville, Wilson, Smith and Putnam counties in the early morning hours of March 3, and these areas are still coming to grips with job losses and property damage related to that.

“It really was a one-two punch,” Wilhite says. “We went from working with people who were dealing with that to setting up the process for virtual interviews for our talent pool and our clients in a matter of two or three weeks.

“But we did it, and since then have been filling orders and getting people placed into positions.”

Nashville’s health care hub poised

Perhaps the most visible job arena that saw a rapid need for personnel as the spread of COVID-19 began across the state and nation was health care.

From front-line workers – doctors and nurses – to support staff needed as emergency rooms filled and admissions rose, the need was significant, says Chris Nichols, client solutions manager at Endevis, a recruitment process consulting and systems firm.

“The demand for clinical talent has been so great, and it’s been about getting people where they need to go,” Nichols says. “We have been working with employers to hire directly into their organizations, especially with acute care positions, because that often is a much more affordable solution than bringing them in on a temporary basis.

“We have been hearing about really high costs for temporary staff, and even though the demand is there, that is not sustainable for these providers over the long term.”

What the pandemic has shown, he says, is the chronic shortage of workers throughout health care, from ICU nurses to home health aides.

“You hear a lot about the nursing shortage, and that is very real, but downstream from this is going to come an awareness of all the other roles,” he explains.

“We’re fighting COVID now, but there are other, ongoing health care needs at the same time. Patients who have cancer still need treatment, for example. All of those people along with those with other medical concerns will still be present and in need when the COVID threat has abated.”

What’s likely, Nichols predicts, is an adjustment across the health care landscape to expand the notion of an employee pipeline beyond doctors and nurses. And much of that new thinking is likely to emanate from Nashville, thanks to its robust health care sector.

“We now are really seeing the shortage not just of staff, but of facilities, in rural areas,” Nichols adds. “How do we incentivize people to go into health care, especially in those parts of the country?

“How do we improve the education system, and the earning power, so that those positions are viable?”

Pre-virus diversity

And it’s not just health care executives and leaders who’ll be perusing that question.

Before the pandemic and related work stoppages, area business leaders and elected officials touted diversity as a core strength of Middle Tennessee’s economy. As those same parties begin eyeing a reboot, will that wide array of industries spur a speedier comeback?

And what will that look like in terms of salaries and benefits, now that there will be more competition for jobs?

“Nashville is a very unique market in that we have huge industries that don’t really connect with each other, such as automotive and health care,” Nichols says. “Or supply chain and logistics, and tourism. They will all come back online in different ways, and at different speeds.

“People who lost one type of job may not want to go back to that industry – they will want something very different, and so will be looking at other employers,’’ he continues.

“People who worked in hospitality and tourism may look elsewhere, for example, because those areas will likely be a little slower to return. But when they do, they will be booking conferences and events as a pent-up need to travel is released. I think the calendar of events for the last two or three months of the year is going to be relentless, and that means they are going to need people.”

Wilhite agrees.

“Employers want to know that when they do come back, they have the support from companies like ours to get them up and running, and to help get that business back to normal quickly.

“We don’t know exactly what ‘normal’ is going to look like, but we do know that we have a pool of talent in the area to meet that increased demand.

“People are filling out applications, and we have not stopped our focus on building those talent pools. There is going to be a lot of demand in many different sectors, and we are working now so we are ready when it comes.”

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