A decade ago, there weren’t enough jobs to go around in Box Elder County and elsewhere as the lingering effects of the housing market collapse and recession that followed continued to drag on the economy.
Fast forward to today, and local employers are facing a much different problem, as put simply by Box Elder County Economic Development Director Mitch Zundel.
“Lots of jobs and not enough people to fill them,” Zundel said.
The challenge might be simple, but the solutions are not as some of the county’s largest employers currently have dozens of jobs going unfilled.
According to the latest figures from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Box Elder’s unemployment rate stood at 2.5% in March, which is near historic lows. The rate has been declining rapidly and steadily since a temporary spike brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic drove the county rate up to 10.3% in April 2020, and Zundel said the actual rate on the ground is likely lower than the official 2.5%.
An estimated 656 eligible workers in Box Elder County were unemployed last month, and of that number, about half are currently claiming unemployment benefits from the state.
“I think the actual unemployment number is lower than the survey is showing,” Zundel said.
West Liberty Foods alone currently has around 130 openings at its Tremonton plant, said Shane Sessions, human resources manager at the meat processing facility that is one of the county’s biggest job creators.
“We’re definitely looking to hire a lot of people,” Sessions said, “but this current (unemployment) rate is making it difficult.”
Other large manufacturers in the county are experiencing similar challenges, including Procter & Gamble, which is going through an expansion at its plant near Bear River City and adding more lines to the variety of personal care products it makes.
“It’s definitely not the easiest environment” in which to find new employees, said Tommy Montoya, human resources director for P&G’s local plant.
Manufacturing isn’t the only game in town, but it is easily the largest, accounting for roughly one in every four jobs in Box Elder County and making it a leading indicator of the health of the local economy.
Sessions said every major manufacturer in the area is looking for people right now. Once factors such as age, eligibility, and physical and mental capabilities are put into the equation, he said the number of potential employees is even smaller than the official numbers show.
“When you whittle all these down, there’s only around 100 people that we’re all fighting for,” he said. “We all get along and we’re not trying to steal from each other. We’re all in the same boat and struggling.”
The labor shortage isn’t just a Box Elder County phenomenon. Surrounding counties are having the same issues, so casting a wider recruiting net doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either, he said.
All this is good news for job seekers, who have more leverage in a tight job market as demand for their services increases. Employers are offering everything from higher wages and better benefits to hiring bonuses as they compete with each other to draw from a smaller pool of available workers.
Sessions said West Liberty is implementing a 50 cents-per-hour increase for all production employees starting in May, and is offering a $1.50 hourly rate hike for those willing to work on a swing shift schedule.
At Procter & Gamble, Montoya said the company’s existing practice of offering a relatively high starting wage and benefits as soon as an employee starts working have been sufficient to meet demand thus far, but “as we monitor the environment we will continue to adapt and pivot as necessary to ensure we’re meeting the needs we have.”
Utah isn’t the only state dealing with the issues that come with a tight labor market right now, but it is among the leaders in that regard. The statewide unemployment rate of 2.9% is significantly below the 6.0% recorded nationwide in March.
Mark Knold, senior economist for DWS, said Utah has rebounded from the pandemic recession more quickly than other states because unemployment was already near historic lows heading into it.
“The Utah job market was so strong and so fully employed (before the pandemic) that job growth was actually slowing a bit because the number of available workers could not keep pace with the number of available jobs,” Knold said.
He said a couple of factors could help with Utah’s labor supply problem as the economy continues to reopen and recover, including an influx of people who aged into the workforce while sitting idle during the pandemic, and the fact that people are moving to Utah from other states, most notably California.
“The opportunity to leave the state is always in front of enough workers in an economy the size of California that even if a segment of those can make their escape, that can be a significant number coming toward Utah,” Knold said. “The pandemic itself is helping to expedite this.”
The underlying message, he said, is that the Utah economy is growing and remains vibrant for the foreseeable future.
“Utah’s current economic picture is much ahead of other states,” he said.
While the low unemployment rate presents challenges for companies looking to hire people, Zundel said it certainly beats having thousands of people out of work as was the case 10 years ago.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.