Traverse City News and Events

TC Employers Get Desperate, Creative To Fill Open Positions

By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 21, 2021

Maybe the signs should say "Help Desperately Wanted." From the area’s largest employers like Munson and Hagerty recruiting professionals like mad to McDonald’s paying $21 per hour to small neighborhood diners cutting back hours, the local need for help remains acute.
 
Dave Denison, owner at Amical in downtown Traverse City, articulates what’s on virtually every business owner’s mind: “The staff is our number one resource. This challenge has been going on for years. It’s been building to this. COVID was the knockout punch.”
 
“We’re always looking for candidates,” agrees Pete Boothroyd, owner of Centre Street Café. He says the “Help Wanted” sign in his front window is likely a permanent fixture. “The high school kids (employees) last year kept me alive. We wouldn’t have made it through summer without them.”
 
Both Centre Street Café and Amical have cut their hours so as not to burn out the staff members they do have. Centre Street is no longer open Saturdays; Amical cut its lunch and brunch business. “We threw all our resources at the dinner hour,” Denison says.
 
As the assistant director of talent acquisition, Jim Graham is in charge of all recruiting efforts for Munson Healthcare. He says Munson is working on several fronts to attract and retain workers, from nurses to support staff.
 
Filling nursing positions was always a challenge; now it’s a crisis.
 
“Long before the pandemic, there was a nursing shortage,” he says. He cites a drop in enrollment in nursing programs at Northwestern Michigan College, the pandemic making some apprehensive about working in clinical settings, the need for greater care for patients as acuity levels increase, and other options for those with a nursing degree as reasons for the increasing shortage. “There are a lot of competing opportunities,” he says, such as telehealth, working for schools, even pharmaceutical sales.
 
One option is travel nurses, who move around the country to fill in where there is a need. That costs Munson more money and could engender resentment among permanent staff. Graham says Munson has created a program to enable nurses to come in as a traveling nurse and eventually become official Munson staff, as well as allow nurses to travel within the Munson system. “We do bring in travelers. We have an in-house project to try to (minimize) excessive reliance. There are financial aspects and (a traveling nurse) is not emotionally vested in Munson.”
 
It's not just nurses that are needed. Graham says Munson has created a program that enables it to offer flexibility for numerous assignments at $20 per hour: Food service, logistics, clerical workers, screeners and others can come in and work in various locations throughout the system. He compares the program to an internal staffing agency.
 
At Hagerty, Vice President of Recruiting K.K. Trucco says the company is currently seeking to fill positions ranging from magazine editors to software engineers, customer service representatives to events professionals. “Hagerty has a wide range of openings,” she says. “We have opportunities for both recent college graduates as well as mid-career and experienced professionals. We are typically recruiting for 30-plus positions.”
 
Matt Cozzens, co-owner of 7 Monks and Low Bar, says he’s fortunate to have a nearly complete staff at present as business starts to return to pre-pandemic levels. He says some staff members have taken the opportunity during the shutdown to transition to new careers, but he’s been able to promote from within. “That paved the way for staff to move into new roles. That opens up (opportunities) for others,” he says.
 
Kirk Bergsma, owner of Big Apple Bagels, hasn’t been as fortunate. “It’s a struggle. We’re only open five days. We can’t find enough employees to cover the services needed (for seven days a week),” he says. He says his staff of himself plus eight others could stretch to fill seven days but would not be able to offer adequate service, and he refuses to compromise.
 
He's increased wages, from $15 per hour in January to $18.50, plus a $2 hourly bonus, but the last three people he’s hired have walked out. He’s looking for a baker and kitchen workers.
 
Even community organizations that would seemingly be immune to the general forces impacting employment are finding it difficult to attract enough workers. Nicole Schroeder says she is scrambling to find enough coaches for the Grand Traverse Ski Club. “It’s always tough,” she says.
 
Getting people to commit their time for nominal compensation is always a challenge. Schroeder says they typically have around 40 coaches for the program at Hickory Hills. Last year, the rise in virtual classes at the college level meant there were a number of college students at home, providing more coaches. “This year we don’t have that,” she says.
 
The result is fewer classes for young skiers. “This year when registration opened … in ten minutes most were all full.”
 
Rob Dickinson is at the center of the hiring storm as manager of Talent Development Initiatives at Northwest Michigan Works. He works to identify the area’s workforce needs and develop ways to attract and retain workers.
 
“It’s worse than I’ve seen it in my ten years working in workforce development,” Dickinson says. “The list (includes) restaurant and hospitality to manufacturing and healthcare.”
 
While there has been a growing need for workers over the past several years, a number of factors have combined to hit a near crisis point. “COVID obviously. Daycare has always been an issue, now it’s in the forefront. Another is housing,” he says. He also points to state programs geared to train people for new jobs, such as Future for Frontliners, which take them out of the current workforce and pay them while they’re in school and training.
 
Many, like Bergsma, see a need to offer higher wages as part of a recruiting and retention strategy. Gretchen Overbeek, vice president of human resources at Hagerty, agrees that may help, but she says it goes beyond income. “Recruits are looking at the full picture, including wages, but also heavily focusing on benefits, remote workplace flexibility and autonomy.”
 
“We got out in front pretty early,” adds Amical’s Denison. “We moved everybody’s wages up that needed it. We already do paid vacations, a 401K. For 2022 we’ve got a benefit plan including health care.”
 
Dickinson acknowledges that addressing the situation won’t be easy. Besides offering more money, he says another strategy some employers take is to go after underrepresented populations, such as older workers, those returning from prison and persons with disabilities. “We have to knock those barriers down,” he says.

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