HELP WANTED

The good news: For those seeking work at a Bartholomew County retail outlet, there are plenty of jobs available.

The bad news: For retail store managers seeking employees, there are not enough candidates.

With a 3.2 percent county unemployment rate recorded in August compared with 4.4 percent a year earlier, the competition for retail workers grows more intense every day, said Cindy Frey, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce president. A jobless rate of less than 5 percent is considered full employment, she said.

“Good help is few and far between,” said Matthew Klinkosh, general manager for Rural King, 2985 N. National Road.

But so far, there’s no indication local store owners are prepared to follow the lead of supermarket chain Giant Eagle. At one of its newest stores, in Carmel, the Pittsburgh-based company has begun offering $400 bonuses to workers who stay for 90 days.

“I don’t see that being an issue in Columbus,” said Chris Johnson, who manages the Lowe’s at 3500 10th St.

About 300 retail jobs are open in Bartholomew County based on information from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. But since retailers use several different recruiting methods — ranging from a sign in a window to referrals and classified help-wanted ads — an exact number of openings in a market is difficult to ascertain.

Of the 734 jobs listed in Columbus by the Link Up job search engine Wednesday, 106 were for retail positions. Only the transportation sector had more listings.

Despite the best efforts of retail managers, there are indications of the growing labor shortage that companies can’t hide from shoppers. When customers begin to complain about such things as longer checkout lines, unclean premises, empty store shelves or shortened business hours, some retailers may be tempted to hire the first warm body they can find.

But if that new hire is incompetent, uncooperative or uncommitted, that person can cost retailers the loyalty of customers they’ve enjoyed for many years, said John Kuchta, president of Omaha-based Solution One.

To aggravate matters, other employees are called upon to pick up the slack for bad hires, Kuchta said. In extreme cases, good employees will leave because of the extra burden brought on because they are overworked and underappreciated, he said.

It’s best to keep a position open and seek out the best possible employees, he said.

Connecting with prospects

In an effort to do exactly that, Lowe’s and Rural King were among 38 employers that participated in The Republic’s Fall Career Fair on Monday. Their goal was to reach job prospects with strong potential and tell them what they have to offer, Klinkosh and Johnson said.About 250 job seekers attended the career fair.In order to remain competitive, Lowe’s is trying to offer flexibility to help employees balance family commitments as well as offering competitive wages and benefits, Johnson said.

“(Rural King) is opening almost 12 stores a year now,” Klinkosh said. “Most people don’t know it, but we have a shares program (an employee stock ownership plan), annual increases, 401k, vacation, hourly and salary positions.”

After recruitment, the second biggest concern for retail store managers is retention, said Allen Percifield, district manager for Hibbett Sports, another local retail business that participated in the career fair.

Percifield said a Hibbett franchise he managed outside Columbus had a 13 percent annual turnover rate, which he says is far below the 100 percent rate for retail outlets nationwide.

“Retention is based on how you treat people,” Percifield said. “A lot of it comes down to three questions: Do they enjoy the job? Do they feel like they are listened to? Do they feel like they are respected?”

When asked how many openings they had, the store managers replied only that they were seeking to fill multiple positions.

Before spending eight years at Hobby Lobby, job fair applicant Kim Glick worked in accounting and office management. She was hoping the career fair would enable her to resume her career in a professional office setting.

“Hobby Lobby was a good-paying company. But in other retail positions, you can’t survive and live off what you make,” Glick said. “There’s also weekend work in retail. I’m wanting a Monday-through-Friday job, if possible.”

Salary levels

In 2013, Indiana experienced the fourth-largest job growth in the country behind North Dakota, Texas and Utah, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.That year, the average wage for nearly 18,000 Bartholomew County workers employed in the manufacturing sector was $66,415, according to the Indiana Business Research Center. In contrast, there were slightly more than 5,000 local residents working in retail trade, and they earned an average annual wage of $31,352, the center stated.That figure includes manager salaries and hourly staff.

The average salary for a retail salesperson in Columbus is $21,610, or about $10.40 an hour, according to the USA Wage website.

“Retail is not for everybody,” Johnson said. “That’s not a secret.”

Although manufacturing usually offers better wages, it’s wrong to assume that all retail positions are low-paying, said Matthew Burton, local branch manager for Adecco Staffing Services.

Retail recruitment today involves getting out in front of people, talking to them, finding out what they are looking for, and examining how that matches an employer’s needs, said Burton, who previously worked seven years in retail management.

“You have to find the right sales pitch that says, ‘Hey, this is a good place to work because of X, Y and Z,’” Burton said.

Factors in filling vacancies

Other factors that contributed to the current situation for local retailers are easy to trace.First of all, 26.3 percent of Bartholomew County’s population is between 45 and 64 years old, according to the Indiana Business Research Center. A majority of that large group are members of the huge baby boom generation now entering their retirement years.“That is leaving many opportunities and unfilled jobs,” Frey said.

But there will always be people who prefer working in retail, as opposed to the “day-to-day, exact same thing over and over again” routine of a factory job, Percifield said.

The lack of employees to fill job vacancies is not unique to retailers, Frey said.

“Most people in most job sectors will say the same thing,” Frey said. “Attracting and retaining employees is going to be an ongoing effort.”

Bartholomew County’s job growth in 2014 was measured at 4.1 percent, which ranked 14th-highest out of 363 metropolitan statistical areas across the United States.

Few retailers have approached the chamber for suggestions on how to attract workers, and there’s little being done by the community to find ways to assist them, Frey said.

“While we’re always talking about how we can attract and retain employees, our focus tends to be more on highly skilled technical workers,” Frey said.

That shouldn’t be surprising, since manufacturing accounted for more than 72 percent of local jobs last year, according to the Indiana Business Review.

While the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 kept a tight lid on local job markets, the situation has changed dramatically for retailers since Bartholomew County’s unemployment rate rose to 10 percent in 2010.

“You can no longer say, ‘Hey, we know you want a job and need money,’ because they can go anywhere and find something,” Percifield said. “It’s an employee-driven market.”

The chamber president phrased the same thought this way.

“People have choices now,” Frey said.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.