DE PERE – Unemployment in Wisconsin is at historic lows. For employers, that’s made competition in hiring fierce.
With jobs open for welders, managers at American-3 Fab in De Pere are among those feeling the tight labor market’s pinch.
“It’s very difficult,” said David Molnar, the shop manager at American-3, said about hiring qualified employees. “Once you do have an applicant, if you don’t make an offer immediately — that same day — they will go find another fabricating company that will hire them.”
Unemployment was 2.8 percent in Wisconsin in April, an all-time low for the state and the fifth lowest rate in the nation, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
“If you’re unemployed now, it’s probably by your choice because everybody is hiring,” said Anthony Snyder, chief executive officer of the Fox Valley Work Development Board.
Jones Sign, a Green Bay-area sign company, has added 42 people to its payroll this year, and it needs 40 to 50 more, said Rafael Aguilo, the company’s talent acquisition manager.
“We’re finding people, but not as a quickly as we need them,” he said. “We’re still being very detailed and selective. We’re not looking for a candidate to come to Jones Sign for six to 12 months; we want someone who is going to want to be here … and be able to work in our environment, because it’s very dynamic.”
Open jobs range from fabrication and installation to sales and project management. In the last six years, Jones Sign has expanded from its home state to more than a dozen locations in the United States and Mexico.
Aguilo said he works quickly, within a matter of days, with interested job candidates to head off the possibility they may find work elsewhere in the meantime.
Government numbers released earlier this month indicated there are now more job openings, almost 6.7 million, in the U.S. than there are unemployed workers, about 6 million. (Americans who have stopped looking for work are not included in those figures.)
Hourly wages in increased 2.7 percent from the same time last year and were up only slightly from April.
Snyder said another effect of the low unemployment is that companies have become more willing to take on — and train — employees with general skills.
“I’ve had employers tell me, ‘I don’t care so much about if they can do the work I need. I can train them to drive a forklift,’” Snyder said.
Especially in pressed manufacturing businesses, expanded overtime for workers is part of the way they are seeking to stretch their existing labor force.
Molnar said American-3 Fab is meeting orders and production schedules through overtime and some weekend work.
“I’d rather have more skilled laborers,” he said.
Both Molnar and Aguilo said their respective companies are seeking employees looking for long-term employment with those businesses.
A pipeline in schools
Even with a high demand for workers, some local companies continue to grow and bring new facilities and jobs to the region.
Green Bay Packaging in Green Bay announced plans last week to build a new paper mill, adding about 200 jobs by 2022 and supporting another 600 existing jobs.
Gulfstream Aerospace is adding about 200 new jobs as it expands its service center Appleton. Many of those jobs are highly-sought specialists in airframes and power plants and avionics technicians.
Since February, the company has added more than 80 employees and will be adding another 45 later this year. Those additions are expected to be followed by another 80 to 100 next year, Heidi Fedak, director of corporate communications for Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. said in an email interview.
Gulfstream is able to draw from aviation-related-program graduates from Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh and Milwaukee Area Technical College. The company works with middle and high schools to introduce students to career opportunities in aviation, provides employee training, and recruits military veterans, all ways to ensure it has a qualified workforce.
“We have also visited (airframe and powerplant)/technical schools in five other Midwestern states — Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota — and have even recruited as far east as Pennsylvania,” Fedak said.
‘Don’t let your skills dry up’
In Wisconsin, unemployment rates are the lowest in urban areas — 2.5 percent in Brown, Outagamie and Marathon Counties — and the areas with persistent higher unemployment tend to be rural counties, including in northern Wisconsin. For instance, the unemployment rate is close to 8 percent in Iron County, 6.8 percent in Menominee County, and 5.9 percent in Bayfield County.
American-3 works in aluminum and stainless steel for industries from dairy and food production to marine, paper and material-handling industries. It has about 80 employees.
Molnar said American-3 is girding for a long-term hiring challenge. It’s turned to a billboard along Interstate 41 seeking skilled employees; offering starting benefits including vacation and unpaid time off; and touts the air conditioning in its newly built shop as one of the job perks.
“There are not too many fab shops in the country that have air conditioning,” he said.
A tight labor market today is not guaranteed to last. A decade after the Great Recession sent millions looking for new work (Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was pushing 9 percent in May 2009), Snyder said it’s a matter of time until workers and business face the next downturn. Now is a good time for employees to prepare.
“There’s always a recession lurking,” Snyder said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
People who are employed should be brushing up their skills, education and community involvement. When the recession comes, it’ll be skilled workers who will survive and thrive.
“Don’t let your skills dry up,” Snyder said. “Take a certificate program at (a technical college), or go back and get your bachelor’s degree if you never got it, or go get your Masters of Business Administration if you never got that. Now is the time.”