By DEVIN HEILMAN
Hagadone News Network
The unemployment office was empty Friday afternoon, save for one man at a computer and a training class taking place in a side room.
No lines, no worried faces, no intense scramble of Idaho Department of Labor employees trying to keep up.
This is what a low unemployment rate looks like on the inside. On the outside, it's a whole lot of "help wanted" signs.
"Anything under 5 percent for a local rate tends to indicate that employers are going to start struggling," said Sam Wolkenhauer, Department of Labor regional economist. "You expect a certain level of unemployment just because people quit, there’s turnover, etc. But anything under 5 percent means you’ve used up most of your available labor."
Good for employees, but not so good for employers. In North Idaho and across the nation, communities are experiencing a shortage of workers.
“Whenever we have a job fair or something this year, we see way more employers than we do job-seekers,” Wolkenhauer said. "It’s not what you typically think of in terms of a job fair where you have lots of people like, ‘Oh, I hope I get a job.’ We have lots of employers that crowd in here and they’re all looking to fill multiple positions. In a lot of cases, the number of employers outnumbers the job-seekers."
According to an article on cnbc.com, finding skilled labor is becoming a big concern and worker shortages are moving higher on priority lists. A CNBC Small Business Survey in June found that jobs and the economy ranked as the top issue for a third of the 2,030 businesses surveyed.
Locally, the "now hiring" signs are in business windows across the board: retail, cafe, fast food, law enforcement, education.
Each field has its own hiring woes, which include job-hopping and leaving after a brief time with the business.
A clerk at Zip Stop Food Mart on Sherman Avenue said convenience stores have a lot of turnaround because of lack of commitment of younger workers.
"We go through employees left and right," said the clerk, whose legal name is Santa Claus. "We get young people who don't want to do the job. That's the biggest problem we have. They don't want to get it all done. It's the way they're brought up. They expect everything to be given to them and they don't want to do the work."
The Coeur d'Alene School District is holding its first job fair at its midtown location Aug. 9 to combat this worker shortage. Human resources director Kelly Ostrom, who has been with the district since 1988, said the worker shortage is making it tougher than ever to fill the open positions.
"The last couple years have been more of a challenge for staffing than I remember," she said. "We're definitely feeling it. Even in our certificate positions we're going without here and there.
"We've had several days throughout the year when we've not been able to fill our classrooms (with teachers) so our principals have had to do some shuffling to make sure we have all our classes covered," she continued. "We've had a tough time getting applicants for full-time positions, like custodians, and part-time, like in child care."
Another impact of this worker shortage is higher pay, "which is what we'd expect," Wolkenhauer said.
"When unemployment's really low and employers are competing for labor, it puts pressure on them to raise their wages, and that's something that I am pretty upfront about when I talk to employers," he said. "When the unemployment rate is this low, we expect wages to be going up because you're competing for something that's scarce."
Wolkenhauer said while the education sector is responding to this worker shortage by providing training, those students won't be entering the workforce right away.
He said if another recession occurs, the work/worker balance will tip, but that's not expected anytime soon. This lack of workforce will begin to hurt in the long run, he said, but in the short-term, this bodes well for employees because of pressure for higher wages.
"We've seen our average wages rise between 2-3 percent annual in the last couple years," he said. "If unemployment stays this low, we could see another 2-3 percent increase when we look at it this time next year."