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Struggle for recruitment, retention

Local isolation exacerbates trends on state, national levels

By SCOTT O’NEIL IWV Economic Dev. Corp.– While recruitment and retention challenges are nothing new in our community, the post-pandemic landscape shows bleak trends at the national and state levels that have only enhanced barriers to hiring and retention for our local employers.

The Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corp. has been engaged on this issue since 2016, but with all the new inhibitors, we took some time to evaluate the broader scope of these challenges.

“With more than 11 million job openings and only 6 million unemployed workers, employers have struggled for more than a year to hire enough people to fill their ranks. That mismatch has left employees frustrated and burnt out, and is fueling a new round of power struggles on the job.”

Scott O’Neil

That excerpt from a Washington Post article, “Worker shortages are fueling America’s biggest labor crisis,” published last month captures the challenges of recruitment and retention that have beleaguered critical services — particularly healthcare, education and heavy industry — across the nation.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, seasonally adjusted job vacancies are at their highest levels since the collection and reporting of this data began in 2000.

The Post article continues reports that the reasons for the reduced workforce include a swarm of early retirements, a slowdown in immigration, and an ongoing shortage of resources for child and elder care.

Unfortunately, many economic forecasts are predicting these labor shortages will get worse before they get better.

In California, employers are citing the disproportionate wage increase as a limiting factor. According to a report from Statista Research Department, the median household income in our state rose from $53,367 annually in 2011 to $81,575 annually in 2021.

Because reimbursements and fees for public services, many of which are capped or set by government mandates, have not been adjusted at the same rate, employers are struggling to maintain staff at a level that meets demand.

As we began to emerge from the COVID era, there are new forces that have driven the competition for talent into its present hyper state. Employee sentiments about telework, vaccinations, and more flexible hours and conditions have caused higher attrition and taller hiring barriers.

Where possible, employers are offering concessions to the traditional workplace environment that allow individuals to save time and resources on their commutes, an ultimately allowing some retention of staff. A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York cites more than 15 percent of full-time employees remain fully remote, and an additional 30 percent work in hybrid arrangements. The result is an estimated 60 million fewer hours that Americans spend commuting.

While some employers are offering this flexibility, the demand in fields such as healthcare, education, hospitality and heavy industry do not often allow for staggered schedules or remote work. Incidentally, these industries have been identified as those experiencing the most difficulty in recruitment and retention.

So, you can see the challenges our local employers are facing. They are recovering from the grip of the pandemic. They have jobs that are vacant and are actively trying to meet their demand. Many employers are poaching employees from other industries in our area, and we are also seeing local candidates hired by companies outside of our region.

As a geographically remote, and in some ways demographically unique, community we know that there are many moving parts and nuances to our particular crisis. Here is a summary of our SWOT [strength-weakness-opportunity-threat] analysis.

Strengths — We have great weather and unlimited, direct access to the outdoors. We are close to everywhere: the mountains, the beaches, fishing/hunting, skiing, etc. We have full access to big-city amenities without the congestion that come with living in a metropolis. Our community is virtually traffic free, with clear skies most of the year, a friendly environment and a great deal of safety. We have good schools, a community college, a highly educated workforce and a relatively low cost of living.

Weaknesses — Our remoteness makes it inconvenient to meet everyday needs like shopping for clothing and many specialty items. We have limited entertainment, no community pool, and a population too small to support some of the kinds of businesses we want to attract. As with many other communities in California, housing remains a challenge — especially the scarcity of newer apartments. We have a significant element of town that is rundown and unkept. We have a disproportionately weak tax base (in part because of the government work that accounts for 86 percent of our economy), which means it will always be difficult to fund public infrastructure, services and quality of life improvements.

Opportunities — The recent earthquakes came with a silver lining in the form of a commitment from congress and the Navy to fund a $3.8 billion rebuild of China Lake. That investment is a testament to Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Divisions’ critical contributions to national security. Once complete, NAWCWD will be the most modern defense laboratory and test facility in the country. The hundreds of contractors stationed here over the next few years to complete the work are also spending money in our local stores and restaurants while they are here. We have an airport that could be a tremendous driver for our economy. Some of our facilities, including Ridgecrest Regional Hospital and Cerro Coso Community College, also play an important role in serving a much broader geographical footprint than just the IWV.

Threats — We must have a sustainable plan for water in order to ensure that the mission of China Lake is not encroached, but we also need a plan affordable enough to continue attracting a quality workforce for the base and other services in our town. Finding a solution will require all of our engagement and commitment.

In the following weeks, we are going to look at challenges specific to China Lake, healthcare, education and heavy industry. Our final article will explore ways for our community to partner on solutions.  The second article is titled, “Healthcare at the center of skilled worker shortages.”