Barry Carlman is Fruitland branch manager at American Staffing Inc., a Meridian labor company with offices in several Idaho cities and Elko, Nev.
In 21 years at his job, Carlman has never seen demand as high as it is now for workers in early summer. In May, the office hired 130 people – a new high for the Fruitland office, which fills many positions in agriculture and food production and processing in a region that includes Oregon’s Malheur County, right across the river from Fruitland. The company finds workers for everything from onion-sorting positions that start at $8.25/hour to electrician jobs that pay $30/hour. With agriculture a huge portion of the local economy, hiring picks up considerably at harvest time, which is generally between August and October.
Payette County, about 45 miles west of Boise on I-84, has an economy that is in some ways typical of those in rural areas in Idaho and elsewhere. Although the area is home to some large companies such as the Fruitland-based Woodgrain Millwork, which is expanding its plant in Nampa; Internet Truckstop in nearby new Plymouth, and health centers recently built by both the Saint Alphonsus and the St. Luke’s health systems, the area remains heavily agricultural. Many of the ag-related jobs are in agricultural production, with hard work, low pay, and not much opportunity for advancement. Employers have a hard time filling those positions.
Carlman spoke to Idaho Business Review about the western Idaho labor market and his thoughts on the labor force. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the reasons you’re seeing for the labor shortage?
The hardest thing right now is the transition to social media, and how to attract millennials.
Also transportation is always an issue, because there is no public transportation, or very little. Or things like a lack of transportation combined with a DUI, so they can’t drive to work.
The younger people don’t want to work. I see it all the time. I see people come up in cars that are duct-taped together, with three young people in the back. You run 10 jobs by them, they turn them down. There’s only one reason: there’s a roof and food someplace for them, because when you are hungry, you’ll take anything.
Working around cut onions is not an easy job; not everybody is cut out for it. But there’s work everywhere. Last week, Wal-Mart moved their hiring desk to the front of the store.
I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of educating people that employment is actually a process, that you start with entry-level stuff, you learn how to be an employee, how to show up, follow instructions, deal with the boss structure, and then advance by showing that you’re capable of doing jobs with more responsibility.
The whole idea is, “I’m not going to be onion-sorter, I’m going to be president.”
Are there enough people here to work these jobs?
We’re not going to get a big influx of new people. We’ll have a small influx of new people, as time goes on.
Would raising pay help?
Only if it is raised a lot. Right now, although, the minimum wage is $7.25 in Idaho and $9.50 in Oregon, it’s pretty much $10 an hour around here to get interest.
Anything less than $10, it’s a revolving door, because as soon as people find something closer to home, or that has a little more money, or they have a friend who works there, or there’s any reason to not be there, they’ll not be there.
Is the Fruitland area different in this regard from other rural areas?
Small towns have some challenges. We still have agriculture, but we’re transitioning to production, manufacturing, retail. We’ve seen big growth in retail, but those jobs aren’t usually paying high-end wages.
Probably the biggest challenge I see overall is regardless of the industry, there are a lot of jobs that pay roughly the same, with the same kind of hours, the same kind of either limited or restricted advancement. If there’s a handful of superior or higher quality employers with better opportunity or better pay, none of them are doing enough to stand out to do the next step.
Pay is still typically less here than in Nampa and Boise, within a dollar or two. And there’s not good mobility. We don’t have lots of call centers or places that have large employment of clerical skills and office workers. We have more production, manufacturing, retail and ag jobs. That makes it difficult, because for a lot of people who went to college and could probably put computer-related or office-related skills to work, there’s very limited places for them to go.
So then they have to take other types of employment that aren’t necessarily in their skill set.
What can employers do?
Lots of hard work and trial and error. You probably have to give more people opportunities that have already proven not to be the best at those opportunities.
At this point, we are literally telling people, especially when it’s conflict resolution or having difficulties or thinking about terminating someone, that it is better to work with the individual and hope for improvement, than to let them go when you have no idea when the next person might be available.
And it’s not necessarily going to be what the employer wants, always – you’re going to have to take into account what the employees, especially the younger ones, need.
You always need to make sure people feel wanted, that they’re an integral part of your company. People usually only hear when they made a mistake, not when they did a good job. Younger people are going to need more of that reassurance and patting on the back than previous generations did. You’re going to have to offer the flexible scheduling type of thing, a little more accommodating. Employers are going to have to make some of those changes.