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WATCH NOW: Help wanted in S.C.; worker shortage more complex than extra jobless money

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The coronavirus pandemic has reached its tentacles into almost every aspect of life over the past year.

Lockdowns, social distancing and fears of the virus in many ways put life on hold for South Carolinians.

One of the casualties of the virus has been the economic infrastructure of the state.

Restaurants closed their doors or resorted to strictly takeout. Hotels were selective in welcoming guests, some only choosing to lodge essential workers.

Industries and manufacturers, especially in aerospace and automotive, faced challenges with a decline in travel, and their respective employee bases felt the brunt of the impact through layoffs and furloughs.

Agribusiness -- especially in the processing component of the industry -- saw employees fearful to come back and work in confined spaces, and reports of virus contagion and spread in processing plants halted operations for a time.

As the state and nation have been able to come to grips with the virus and its impact, and with vaccine rollouts, the economy is reopening.

But a new problem has arisen: Businesses and industries are now finding it difficult to handle the increasing demand as many are facing workforce shortages.

There are signs everywhere – in many cases literally signs – that workers are being sought and that businesses are being negatively affected: “Help Wanted,” “Now Hiring,” “Service will be affected because of a worker shortage – it’s the new pandemic.”

S.C. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Morgan noted a book from several years ago,  "The Coming Jobs War."

"It is not coming, it is upon us," Morgan said. "When we talk to small business in the state, it is not just hospitality and tourism. It is also manufacturing and construction that seem to be the hardest hit."

Morgan said the chamber has conducted a number of surveys with its members and 60% say the workforce shortage is their number one issue.

When the pandemic hit, jobs were cut and shed, Morgan said. But now the economy wants to pick up stream but is having difficultly doing so because of a shortage of labor.

"It is time to get back to work and increase the workforce participation rate," Morgan said.

The cause of the shortages is multifaceted.

For many it could be a fear of a returning to the workplace or parental responsibilities at home with children out of school, or returning to work and paying daycare costs that wipe out the extra money made by working.

And there is the longstanding issue of lack of training and education affecting the ability to hire qualified workers.

According to South Carolina Works Online Services, there were a total of 84,114 jobs and 1,504 green job openings advertised online throughout the state as of May 24. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as those involving workers making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or using fewer natural resources.

Industries with the most job openings and green jobs advertised are:

  • Health care and social assistance: 12,332. Green job count: 95
  • Retail trade: 9,201. Green job count: 60
  • Educational services: 5,536. Green job count: 229
  • Accommodations and food services: 5,507. Green job count: 19
  • Manufacturing: 4,567. Green job count: 236
  • Administrative and support and waste management and remediation services: 3,961. Green job count: 137
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: 3,357. Green job count: 178
  • Public administration: 2,273. Green job count: 56
  • Wholesale trade: 2,018. Green job count: 52
  • Finance and insurance: 1,971

Governor takes action

S.C. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster says jobs and opportunities are there but people are not going back to work, putting the state's economy at risk.

He blames the $300-a-week federal unemployment assistance being paid to workers on top of state jobless benefits.

In a letter written to SCDEW Department of Employment and Workforce Director Daniel Ellzey, McMaster said the labor shortage is "being created in large part by the supplemental unemployment payments."

"In many instances, these payments are greater than the worker's previous paychecks," McMaster wrote. "What was intended to be short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement, incentivizing and paying workers to stay at home rather than encouraging them to return to the workplace."

"These federal entitlements pose a clear and present danger to the health of our state’s businesses and to our economy," McMaster said. "Since the Biden administration and Congress appear to have little to no comprehension of the damage being done and no appetite to terminate the federal payments, the State of South Carolina must take action."

McMaster issued a directive that all federal unemployment-assistance programs will conclude by June 30, which means the final week for federal insurance claims will be June 20-26.

According to SCDEW, the state's April 2021 unemployment rate was 5%.

Statewide, there were 118,377 people unemployed through April 2021. That is a decrease of 2,278 people from the March 2021 estimate and a notable increase of 152,386 over the April 2020 estimate.

Of these, the total number of claimants found eligible to receive federal program benefits as of May 15 was 74,963. SCDEW noted the department does not have federal claimant numbers on the county level.

An estimated 15,807 individuals are receiving state benefits, which will not be discontinued at the end of June.

The SCDEW will return to normal operation of the state's unemployment insurance program, which includes the requirement that claimants demonstrate active efforts to seek employment in order to remain eligible for benefits.

"In order to be eligible for unemployment insurance, an individual must have lost work through no fault of their own – which means, they were previously working and are therefore re-employable," South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce Public Relations Specialist Heather Biance said.

"Employers around the state are eagerly and actively hiring – all levels, entry to advanced employment, a wealth of on-the-job training opportunities, and many jobs with little to no prior experience required."

Biance also noted the SC Works system is there to help job seekers identify and overcome barriers to employment.

"Some examples of these barriers could include education and training, as well as childcare or transportation," she said. "We encourage individuals who need assistance with their job search to contact their local center."

In the interim, Morgan said businesses themselves are dealing with shortages in a number of ways: raising wages, focusing on increased benefits, retention bonuses and even signing bonuses if an individual shows up for an interview.

Many businesses and manufacturers say people are applying for jobs and are offered the job but are not showing up, Morgan said.

The chamber is also listening to small business and manufacturers' concerns and relaying these concerns to policymakers. Morgan said the chamber is pleased that McMaster is ending federal unemployment benefits.

Morgan said the chamber is hosting a workforce symposium with the Department of Employment and Workforce in October to bring companies together to talk about the economy and workforce.

Morgan also said job training is an issue, as well as the lack of soft skills and technical skills among many.

Another issue is undocumented workers, Morgan said.

"We have tightened down in this country on immigration and the ability of undocumented people to work in this country," Morgan said. "This has been one of the biggest challenges. Businesses have lost some of their best talent."

He said the state needs to address the issue of undocumented workers and the nation needs immigration reform.

Industry and manufacturing

South Carolina Department of Commerce Director of Marketing and Communications Alex Clark said workforce needs vary geographically within the state and also within different industries.

"Anecdotally, we have heard that some manufacturing companies have an increased need for employees and for a variety of reasons (not just related to COVID)," Clark said.

She said employees are trying a number of ways to attract employees, though it is "not a one-size-fits-all approach."

"Industries are increasingly implementing creative approaches to satisfy workforce needs," Clark said.

Clark said for workforce development is a priority for the Department of Commerce.

"We have remained focused on working to ensure there is a ready, skilled pipeline in the short, mid and long term for existing and future industry," she said. "We have also thought outside the box in recent years, including administering the S.C. Coordinating Council for Workforce Development, developing and deploying the ManufirstSC program and supporting the S.C. Fraunhofer USA Alliance."

Clark noted that earlier this year the S.C. Technical College System received $8 million in the form of student grants, providing scholarships to students enrolled in specific workforce programs.

Clark said the Department of Commerce continues to be engaged with existing industry and provides resources on a case-by-case basis (ex. ManufirstSC may be an option for a manufacturer).

"More broadly, S.C. Commerce was recently awarded $1.5 million to establish the South Carolina Workforce Journey, which is designed to provide career exploration and job-preparation resources for those between the age of 16 and 24 who were impacted by the pandemic," Clark said. "The initiative will employ new technology to highlight current and prospective career opportunities, and it will target high schools, career and technical education centers, technical colleges and employers."

"Also included in this initiative will be a regional labor market data analysis to highlight specific job market trends and an assessment tool for entry and mid-skill jobs as it relates to artificial intelligence and machine learning," Clark said.

The initiative will launch in the fall and help to "build curriculum and training to be embedded in current education around AI and ML," Clark said.

The Department of Commerce also has 12 regional workforce advisers serving as the go-to team to bridge gaps at the local level between those who educate students and those in the business community who rely on a talented labor pool.

"The RWA team recently launched the 'Define the Journey' podcast, https://sccommerce.com/podcast, which examines workforce opportunities with in-depth conversations about the modern workplace and the skills needed that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree," Clark said. "This weekly podcast delivers practical advice to help parents/caregivers navigate a graduate’s roadmap to success, including available resources and funding opportunities."

Clark said despite the challenges of COVID, manufacturers across the state showed resiliency during the pandemic.

"In general, the industry was able to pivot to both meet the needs of the pandemic (ex. shifting operations to make PPE and/or implementing operational changes to protect employees’ health), while also finding solutions to best protect the employees’ livelihoods," Clark said.

Agriculture

In the world of agriculture, workforce shortages are mostly on the processing side.

"They are a big concern," South Carolina Department of Agriculture Communications Director Eva Moore said. "We’ve heard about particular hiring difficulties in poultry processing."

Moore said on the production side, workforce issues are less severe.

"Larger producers that require lots of seasonal labor often hire immigrant workers through the H-2A program, which has not seen serious interruptions," Moore said. "Smaller producers, meanwhile, often have a more stable, small, local workforce and we have not heard widespread reports of staffing problems."

The SCDA has a number of long-term solutions to help deal with workforce concerns.

Among these are working to fill the pipeline of agriculture workers by supporting efforts such as the Governor’s School for Agriculture at John De La Howe, the S.C. Commissioner’s School for Agriculture and South Carolina State University’s 1890 Extension.

"We have also supported SCDEW on the “Be Pro Be Proud” workforce development initiative, which encourages workers to train for and seek out careers in industries like trucking that are critical to agriculture," Moore said.

Appleseed Legal Justice Center 

While the business, industry and agriculture sectors try to attract individuals back to work, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an advocacy group for low-income individuals, says ending federal unemployment benefits is not a good thing and will harm those most in need.

"It is shortsighted and not very well thought out as a policy to make people who have been living in this crisis and trying to put their lives back together a numbers game," South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center Director Sue Berkowitz said about McMaster's plan to end federal assistance.

Berkowitz said the decision does not take into account the number of situations individuals find themselves in, such as work experience, job training and eligibility.

"A number of people who may be unemployed still have serious health consequences or live with someone with serious health consequences that can't be exposed to COVID," she said, noting that some may want to go back to work but cannot. "There are a lot of downsides."

She said the governor's order will also disproportionately impact low-income people.

"For folks who have had little to rely on before the pandemic and lost everything, it is going to be a lot harder to ask folks to pick up the pieces and move forward," she said. "If they have a child at home and still cannot go to school, it puts them in a  very difficult position."

People having lost their homes early in the pandemic may be located now in places where they may not have easy access to jobs, she said.

Berkowitz said there can be a mindset with some that people not currently working are individuals not wanting to work.

"It is not so simple for people who want to work to be able to access work," she said. "There are a lot of variables our state refused to acknowledge to help people get into and stay in the workforce."

"It is not as easy as everyone thinks it is to just make all these problems go away without coming up with policy solutions to assist," she said, noting since the governor's announcement she has heard from a number of people about their concerns.

"They are saying, 'I don't know what I am going to do,'" she said. "They say, 'I want to go back right now but it is not possible' or 'I have been looking and looking and nothing.'"

She said for many, the jobs they were trained for are not coming back.

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