Laboring over labor: As positions go unfilled, institutions, businesses trying different strategies to address the problem

  • Edward Wingenback, president of Hampshire College, talks about the job market at the Five College job fair in Amherst Thursday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Edward Wingenback, president of Hampshire College, talks with Matt Babiec about carpentry positions at the Five College job fair in Amherst on Thursday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Wozlonis walks into the Five College job fair in Amherst Thursday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lina Mistron talks about looking for a job at the Five College job fair in Amherst Thursday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lina Mistron talks with Katty Calderon of UMass at the Five College job fair in Amherst on Thursday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2022

HADLEY — Landing a job in the educational field would be ideal for Lina Mistron as she finishes work on a graduate degree in history.

Mistron, attending the Five College Jobs Fair at 400 Venture Way a week ago Thursday, discovered more career possibilities that might be a perfect fit for her experience than she had envisioned.

“I felt that there weren’t a lot of openings available, so it’s encouraging for employers to reach out and for us to show them what we’ve got,” Mistron said. “Now I feel like there are choices.”

The Turners Falls resident was among 200 or so people looking for work at the event, put on by the Five Colleges Inc. The campuses of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, along with the University of Massachusetts, offered information about more than 100 open campus positions, ranging from custodial, dining and facilities work to positions in financial analysis, administration and information technology.

Hampshire College President Edward Wingenbach, who is also the president of the Five Colleges board, said changes in the nature of employment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have left more openings.

“Coming out of the pandemic, [we have] a flexibility in how we interpret qualifications and what you need in terms of experience. We’re finding ways to reduce barriers to access,” Wingenbach said.

Staging an in-person jobs fair may not be common, but is also not unusual in the current economic climate, where many positions go wanting. It’s a struggle that spans many fields, from higher education to health care and retail — as is evident by the number of “help wanted” signs posted outside of businesses throughout the region.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a September article, “Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries,” notes that in 2021, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs, many of whom were in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation, and a strong company culture — a shift brought on by the pandemic.

“But a closer look at what has happened to the labor force can be better described as ‘The Great Reshuffle’ because hiring rates have outpaced quit rates since November of 2020,” the report states. “So, many workers are quitting their jobs — but many are getting re-hired elsewhere.”

While retail, health care and durable goods manufacturing are facing a labor shortage, other industries — transportation, construction and mining industries — are in what experts call a labor surplus, in which there are more unemployed workers with experience in their respective industry than there are open jobs.

In Massachusetts, the UMass Donahue Institute periodically issues its MassBenchmarks reports, which elaborate on economic conditions across the state.

In April, its editorial board reported that payroll employment statewide was up 5.2% in the first quarter of the year, outpacing the 4.8% increase nationally.

Even so, according to the report prepared by Mark Melnik, senior managing editor, and Branner Stewart, senior research manager, the state is facing challenges in getting positions filled, including an out-migration of more people leaving for other states than who are coming in, and a decline in international immigration that historically has been a major generator of the growth of the labor force for Massachusetts.

“The lack of population growth is constraining labor force growth which, in turn, will make it more challenging for the state to fill jobs,” the report notes.

This impact was seen directly on Thursday, when the Walgreens pharmacy branch in Easthampton closed, citing staffing shortages, according to signs posted at the entrance to the 32 Union St. location.

Businesses that have traditionally depended on college students to make up portions of their workforce are also being challenged by the current economy.

At Domino’s Pizza at 459 Russell St. in Hadley, near the Amherst town line, the Planning Board this week approved signs advertising work available at the restaurant. The request was made by Norman Vogel, the supervisor there.

“We’re trying to figure out how to attract employees to work,” Vogel said. “We’re trying everything we can.”

The signs announcing job openings will be up for two months, with two attached to the building, a flag flying along the road and smaller signs that will be positioned in the lawn. The idea is that during the academic year recruitment of student workers is necessary.

Vogel said one obstacle in getting workers has been UMass, where Domino’s has traditionally gone to find employees, but is discouraging campus solicitations for help.

Planning Board Chairman James Maksimoski said the environment for hiring is difficult for many businesses.

“It’s an advertisement for help, which is a predicament a vast majority of businesses are in,” Maksimoski said.

At the job fair

As job seekers arrived at the tent at the Five Colleges job fair on Oct. 6, they filled out intake forms and handed off resumes, which would be distributed to each of the colleges and UMass. Then, they were free to converse with potential employers, learning more about jobs they could take on.

Mistron, the job seeker from Turners Falls, said she’s looking for a position in administration. Completing studies remotely at Middle Tennessee State and moving to the Pioneer Valley to be closer to her sister, who works at the University of Massachusetts, she wants to help students and faculty.

“I have experience in teaching and education, and I just really enjoy being in education and cooperative spaces,” she said.

Wingenbach observes that pay at all the higher education institutions starts well above minimum wage and the package of benefits for anyone starting their careers or changing jobs is excellent.

“Full-time benefits are slightly above market, making working at the colleges and university an attractive place to be,” Wingenbach said.

For about a month, Randy Reeder of Hadley has been unemployed, but he dropped by to see if he might get back into the workforce, where he would like to resume being a cook.

What he discovered is that a job might be available to him. “A lot of potential, more than I expected,” is how Reeder put his search.

Matt Babiec of Ludlow said he has spent his professional career in carpentry. From conversations he had at the fair, there’s a good chance he might find position on one of the campuses.

“I’m very surprised how much is available,” Babiec said. “So far, it seems, every job fits the skills I have.”

Ellie Vakili of Amherst said she is looking for work in the education field. A postdoctoral researcher, Vakili has applied online for many jobs in higher education, without success.

“I want to find out why I keep getting rejected,” Vakili said of her hope to talk to people at the colleges and UMass. “I want to be putting my skills somewhere in education.”

Melnik, the director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute, said it is uncertain how well efforts to fill various jobs will do.

“I am not sure the success rate of any of these individual things like signing bonuses and ‘help wanted’ signs, but employers are having to be creative in how they fill posting with an extremely low unemployment rate,” Melnik said. “This will likely continue in the coming years as the labor force continues to age.”