'We are seeing a war for talent’

Demand for holiday help has employers scrambling, wages rising

Friday, November 18, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 47
By Joe Morris

Despite a daily influx of new Middle Tennessee residents, companies looking to hire workers for the upcoming holiday season may have a tougher time than usual filling those spots.

That’s because Davidson County’s unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in August, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the lowest urban figure in the state and well below the state’s 4.4 percent rate.

That means there’s a small pool of job seekers, seasonal or otherwise.

The answer? Start talking to seniors and other groups who normally may not be recruited for part-time work that has an expiration date.

“We were contacted by the folks at Gaylord Opryland [Resort & Convention Center], who were looking for people to work their holiday shows,” says Kelsey Mahaffey, center director at FiftyForward’s Madison Station.

“They rented space and came in here to talk to people. We also had a company come through that provides the cookies kids and schools sell for fundraisers. Once the orders are turned in, they need people to process and package those, and then ship them out to the schools.”

All this is unusual, says Mahaffey and her counterpart, Lisa Maddox, who is program director at the Donelson Station.

“Usually it’s our members coming to us and saying ‘help me find a job,’” Mahaffey explains. “There just aren’t as many younger people to hire now, so they’re coming to us.”

“Sometimes we’ll be recruited by tax preparers, but this is the first time we’ve had this many people coming to us.”

“But in addition to our members who might be looking, we have people who work full- and part-time, and they are telling us that there are a lot of opportunities out there.”

One such opening for seniors, as well as younger workers, is with the Nashville Salvation Army, which is looking for 100 bell ringers to work through Dec. 14 at area retail stores. The need is for both full- and part-time workers, says Sgt. Steve Simms, corps coordinator, and workers will need to be able to work an eight-hour shift and tolerate the cold.

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Tennessee’s overall employment situation benefits from Nashville’s boomtown status, as Metro Davidson County leads the state’s urban areas for overall employment.

The state’s jobless picture is improving, meaning employers will have to sweeten the pot to lure in new workers now and in the coming months.

“Tennessee’s unemployment rate is more than a percentage point lower than it was in the fall of 2015, and this could make it challenging for some companies to find workers during the upcoming holiday season,” says Chris Cannon, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“But it also means there are plenty of seasonal jobs available across the state for people who are looking for work, or who may just want a part-time job to make extra money for the holidays.

On the broader plane, most of the current crop of seasonal jobs are in the distribution and logistics sectors. Amazon, UPS and Macy’s have strong presences in Middle Tennessee, and both are on the prowl for employees.

Although it has been shrinking its overall footprint in a challenging retail environment, Macy’s is looking for more than 6,200 people for a district that includes Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, and upping its national workforce by 83,000 during the season, says Melissa Goff, vice president of media relations and cause marketing. Current employees can also increase their hours first, the retailer reports, with seasonal workers filling the gaps.

At UPS, the search is on for 1,100 employees in the Nashville area. The jobs are for drivers, driver helpers and part-time package handlers, says Dan McMackin, who notes that the temp jobs often lead to a full-time gig.

“Wages range from $10.10 to about $30 an hour, and over the past three years 37 percent of our season hires nationally have become permanent employees,” says McMackin, adding “our CEO started out as a part-time package handler, so the ‘foot in the door’ concept is at work here.

UPS is looking to hire 1,100 employees in the Nashville area for the holidays. The jobs are for drivers, driver helpers and part-time package handlers. Temp jobs often lead to a full-time jobs.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“It’s definitely tight out there across the country. Unemployment is at all-time low, and there is a lot of competition for seasonal hires. We do think we offer a very unique opportunity to get on permanently and perhaps even move on up through the organization.”

Amazon’s fulfillment center in Murfreesboro also is beefing up as part of a nationwide 120,000-job expansion for the holiday period.

The online retailer needs people for its sorting and fulfillment centers and customer-service sites. Like UPS, Amazon also transitions some seasonal workers to full-time positons – more than 14,000 last year – says spokesperson Nina Lindsey.

The numbers are equally strong at FedEx, which is adding 50,000 people nationwide, mostly in its ground division.

Hires will be package handlers, drivers and other support positions.

Goodlettsville-based Dollar General has been growing regionally and nationwide, and now has more than 13,000 locations. That means an earlier and more aggressive hiring strategy and a 10,000-emloyee hiring goal.

The retailer will continue to bring on full-time people in the coming months to meet its steady growth agenda rather than bumping up for seasonal-only hires, the company’s Crystal Ghassemi says.

The Middle Tennessee market is likely to stay tight in the retail and service sector well beyond the holidays, says Larry Feinstein, chief executive officer of staffing firm Hire Dynamics.

“We staff some big retail-oriented around the Southeast, and Nashville is our tightest labor market,” Feinstein says.

“We are seeing a war for talent, and pay rates are going up like crazy. Jobs that used to pay $9 or $10 an hour are now up to $12. We’re also seeing large entities like Walmart and McDonald’s paying more because they’re having trouble getting people, and that means these pay rates will probably stay up.”

Feinstein also notes that “seasonal” when it applies to retail used to mean hiring in late October for the next two months, and now that timeline has shifted back a few weeks.

Green Hills Mall prepares for Santa’s arrival with Santa’s Flight Academy (a virtual flight experience).

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“It’s the ‘e-commerce effect,’ where companies who used to gear up and send things to stores are now having to handle online orders,” he explains.

“Those are smaller orders, and are more labor-intensive. And people are ordering earlier, so they need people doing the collecting, sorting and packing earlier.”

The real story, he concludes, “is that it’s hard to fill the orders our clients have. It’s hard to meet demand in Middle Tennessee.”

Feinstein’s prediction is echoed by other observers in the market, such as the Nashville Area chamber of Commerce.

“Over the long term, matching the skills of the workforce to the needs of business will remain one of the region’s biggest challenges,” says Mark Drury, director of public relations and communications.

“That’s especially true when it comes to so-called ‘middle skill’ jobs, requiring an associate’s degree or industry certification, but not a bachelor’s degree.

Research is forecasting strong job growth in this area and the region will have to address issues like mass transit and housing affordability if we’re to attract or develop enough skilled workers to fill those jobs and keep the economy prospering.”