Population loss, dwindling labor force hurting Guernsey Co. businesses

A dwindling population that pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a limited labor force that continues to impact hiring woes for businesses in Guernsey County as they begin the new year.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census report, there are 38,438 residents in Guernsey County, down slightly from a previous projection of 38,750 and a 4.1% decline from 2010 when the population totaled 40,087.

“Probably the most important piece of data to recognize in our county is our shrinking population, said Sue Thomas-Sikora, assistant director of Guernsey County Department of Job and Family Services and OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County.

“However, our business and industry base has remained strong. We are fortunate that employers have remained committed to our county, however as folks move elsewhere it makes it more difficult to fill their job needs.”

Future estimates indicate the number of residents in Guernsey County will be 37,310 in 2030 and 36,390 in 2040.

With one of the lowest unemployment rates (4.1%) in recent history in the county, the fact is there are simply not enough people to fill the open jobs.

“We are seeing a lot of job openings, but it is still very difficult to get them filled,” added Kathy Jamiel, executive director of the Guernsey County Department of Job and Family Services and OhioMeansJobs. “We are doing all we can to get people in and make sure they know what is available.

“At some places, the need is higher than we can even accommodate,” Jamiel added.

Statistics show only 713 of the estimated workforces totaling 17,300 people in Guernsey County are unemployed.

“Essentially, we had a labor force shortage before the pandemic,” said Thomas-Sikora. “There may be some new factors to consider when looking at the current market related to COVID, but the demand from employers surpassed the available workforce in the county before the pandemic.”

Guernsey County’s unemployment rate is similar to the State of Ohio (4.8%) and the nation (4.2%) 

“The number of job openings far exceeds the number of individuals available to work,” said Thomas-Sikora of the statewide issue. “It has been said that if we were to put all individuals currently receiving unemployment back to work, we would still fall significantly short in meeting the job posts from employers in Ohio.”

OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County reports the local labor force totaled 19,900 in 2007, but has since declined to 18,100 in 2011 and 17,300 in 2021.

The agency reports a few of the factors for people leaving Guernsey County include:

  • A lack of affordable and available housing.
  • Lack of attractive amenities.
  • Lack of extensive public transportation.
  • Not returning to college.
  • Better employment opportunities.

Other reasons the workforce is shrinking

In addition to the declining population, factors impacting the vanishing workforce include more Baby Boomers retiring and not returning to work, a reduction in men ages 25 to 54 participating in the labor force and women leaving the workforce.

“We are seeing people choosing to leave the workforce voluntarily in greater numbers than ever before,” said Thomas-Sikora.

Locally, OMJ staffers are having discussions with employers seeking to understand what is going on and they are finding is it’s a job-seeker market.

People are now taking a look at issues around work-life balance, wanting to work from home either due to the pandemic, childcare or adult day care shortages, wanting a better work schedule or holding out for better pay.

“Many of those are the reasons we hear at the OMJ office daily,” said Thomas-Sikora.

The Ohio Southeast Economic Development team that serves Guernsey and other area counties also cited a report by Columbus Business First attributing the lowest birth rate in U.S. history as a factor that could impact the long-term shortage of workers.

What’s next?

Guernsey County Community Improvement Corporation and Port Authority Executive Director Norm Blanchard recently said local plant managers have expressed staffing concerns in advance of potential expansion.

The same concerns face businesses looking to locate in Guernsey County.

The Ohio Southeast Economic Development team visited or met virtually with more than 220 businesses last year. The team reported finding, training and keeping good employees is the number one topic employers talk about.

Bob Koscoe of Atkore International Inc, also known locally as Monogram Metals, in Byesville said things have improved slightly, but there is still an unfilled demand for workers.

“We are still having issues hiring people, but we are doing a little better because we increased our wage rate and started offering sign-on bonuses,” Koscoe said. “But, it’s still hard to get, and then keep, people and I don’t know why.

“There are plenty of people, but they just don’t want to work.”

OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County is working to understand the local labor data and change business practices including better recruiting strategies, removing barriers such as childcare and transportation and apprenticeship opportunities.

“Employers are beginning to recognize they need to reevaluate their standard way of operating and consider changes to pay scales, job locations and benefit packages in order to recruit for their businesses,” said Thomas-Sikora.

More virtual services such as virtual job fairs; online job searches, workshops and trainings; Zoom appointments; online resume services and incentivizing employment gains are also a must.

“We are looking at becoming more creative in our services to employers both in our recruiting techniques and the programs we offer,” said Sikora-Thomas. “In addition, we use Facebook and other online recruiting sources to reach out to those looking for work.

“We can also assist qualified job seekers with employment incentives during the new hire phase and incumbent worker training assistance to employers who may choose to upgrade the skills of existing employees to meet workforce needs during these challenging times.”

Some of the incentives currently being offered by employers to attract new employees include signing bonuses, pay rate increases, shift differential pay, bonuses for attendance and production, employer paid health insurance, additional vacation days, flexible work schedules and employer-paid training. 

“Employers are trying to be creative to get people to work,” Jamiel said.

The elimination of stimulus payments by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some people back to work, but not enough to make a significant difference in the workforce.

Blanchard said another way local officials are trying to keep people working locally instead of leaving the county is the Guernsey Workforce Collaborative, an education-industry coalition organized by the East Central Ohio Educational Service Center.

Each of the three school districts have a career navigator that works with local business leaders and students regarding local employment opportunities.

“We partner with local schools to support their Career Navigators,” said Thomas-Sikora.

“We recognize that we need to invest in the future workforce for our employers and partnering with our local high schools gives us a chance to educate kids on the types of jobs available in the community and encourage them to consider staying close to home.” 

OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County also offers help with resumes and training to improve interview skills. It also offers qualified residents funding for special training or a college education.

“Things are changing that have a bearing on people going back to work, but jobs are available,” said Jamiel. “We are here to help people.”

In December, OMJ reported the highest demand for jobs statewide included registered nurses, heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers, first-line supervisors for retail sales workers, retail salespersons and restaurant workers.

“From November 2020 to November 2021, our vacancy rate for employees has more than doubled at 108%,” said Steven Brooks, vice president of Human Resources at Southeastern Ohio Regional Medical Center.

“The open nursing positions have been really hard to fill and those openings are up 317% from the previous year. Typically, we might have five or six openings, but right now we have 23 or 24 openings posted.”

Brooks said many nurses have retired or left bed-side care duties due to the risk of taking care of COVID-19 patients. Others have accepted the numerous travel nursing positions with higher pay rates.

“The travel positions are so lucrative right now,” said Brooks.

Southeastern Med has offered current employees and new hires sign-on or retention bonuses, as well as raising pay rates for some of the key employees to fill some of the staff vacancies and prevent employees from leaving.

“It seems like as quick as you hire somebody, someone else leaves,” said Brooks. “We have gone over our projected budget trying to recruit and retain people.”

The local OhioMeansJobs provides job listings for Guernsey and surrounding counties.

The OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County office is located in the Department of Job and Family Services building at 324 Highland Ave. in Cambridge.

For more information, call the OMJ office, 740-432-2381 or visit www.guernseycountyjfs.org.