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In a Pinch

There’s no way around it: Businesses across the country are feeling squeezed as workers are resigning from jobs in historic numbers every month. Consider that, in the United States, there are nearly twice as many open jobs as people willing to fill them. Plus, retail and service are two of the sectors hardest hit by labor shortages. As a result, awards and personalization employers are struggling to find workers, especially for customer service and warehouse jobs.

In a Pinch

As labor shortage struggles continue, business owners will need to get creative.

Kate Rockwood

(Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Insights.)

There’s no way around it: Businesses across the country are feeling squeezed as workers are resigning from jobs in historic numbers every month. Consider that, in the United States, there are nearly twice as many open jobs as people willing to fill them. Plus, retail and service are two of the sectors hardest hit by labor shortages. As a result, awards and personalization employers are struggling to find workers, especially for customer service and warehouse jobs.

“I often ask myself, where are all these people that were working before the pandemic, and why haven’t they come back?” says Greg Della Badia, vice president of New Jersey supplier Tropar Manufacturing.

To compete against big companies in other industries that are wooing workers with high wages, work-from-home opportunities or expansive benefits packages, awards retailers and suppliers must get creative. From recruiting strategies to wage bumps, here’s how the industry is bringing in talent—and holding onto it.

Working Through It

The COVID-19 pandemic slammed awards and personalization businesses like so many others across the country, and owners took whatever measures they could to protect employees when work dried up. Some businesses were forced to lay off or furlough staff while others managed to keep everyone on until work trickled back in. Some owners, like Mark Warren, CRM, owner and CEO of American Awards & Promotions in Milton, Wisconsin, even helped employees make the most of the government stimulus and unemployment dollars. “We wanted to take care of our employees the best we could,” he says.

Operators expected that when the government’s COVID-19 relief checks stopped, workers would come running back. “We thought after the $600 was over, we’d have our pick of the litter,” Della Badia says. “But that didn’t happen.”

Some shops were able to operate with a skeleton staff when business was low, but now that business is back, they are struggling to keep up with the work. Some are even seeing booming sales because competitors shuttered during the worst of the pandemic.

“By the fall of 2020, our business was increasing because many other area businesses in similar industries were closing, and we were getting new customers,” Warren says. “We have turned down many orders because we could not produce the orders fast enough.” The company has even closed down its showroom one day a week because they don’t have enough trained customer service employees to handle the workload, he adds.

Tom Jackson of Jackson Marking Products in Mount Vernon, Illinois, says he routinely has to quote extended delivery times for larger jobs because of the difficulty of finding employees.

The trend is visible across sectors. Lower-wage retail and service jobs are significantly lagging behind other industries, and there is heavy competition for labor.

“It’s still hard to get employees, because Amazon, Walmart and others are offering great benefits and pay for lower-skilled jobs,” says Paul Williams, CEO of Absolutely Trophies in Bayside, New York. “They even have signing bonuses.”

New Recruiting Strategies

With workers wielding the leverage to shop around for jobs, operators in the awards and personalization world are finding that the old tactics for attracting talent aren’t enough anymore.

“Just a few years ago, we could place a ‘help wanted’ ad in the newspaper and have 30 people apply,” Jackson says. Today, he publishes most of his job postings on Facebook and Indeed and still can’t get that strong of a response. “We have learned to expect three to five applicants over two weeks—and sometimes less than that.” 

The difficulties have changed his approach to recruiting and retaining employees. “We offer higher wages and more benefits than a few years ago and have learned to appreciate our good people even more than in the past,” he says.

Other owners and operators are similarly having to update their recruitment playbooks. Lisa Higginbotham, CRM, president and owner of FiveStar Awards & Engraving in Cary, North Carolina, says she was able to bring back her staff after furloughing them all at the start of the pandemic. But when it was time to hire new people, she posted for the first time on LinkedIn, to some success.

Della Badia has turned to temp agencies to fill jobs that require certification, such as machine and forklift operators. He also relies heavily on referrals from current employees for bringing in new ones. “That’s our best bet for unskilled labor positions,” he says.

Williams, too, finds people through internal referrals and by expanding his reach through networking. He joined a few chambers of commerce, which he says are good for both labor and sales. “That helps get the word out and show that you care about the communities and want to do business with them,” he says.

Many of Williams’ staff are young people who work for him for a short time. “Luckily, the city provided us with some interns. With them, we should be fine,” he says. “They do mostly just trophy production, and we teach them how to use the lasers and desktop design software. I also have interns who do research into different markets for me. They research schools, churches, associations and other organizations so I can reach out to them when I have time.” He also volunteers with a youth athletics organization and has had many of the participants work with him for a while.

At the end of the day, though, Williams says retaining good people will continue to be difficult until he can afford to offer competitive benefits.

“Unless there’s some way, maybe government initiatives, to help small businesses provide affordable healthcare and 401(k) programs—as minimum wage increases, small businesses won’t be able to keep their doors open with rent and other rising costs. It’s really going to be challenging for the small businesses,” he says. “The only way I can survive is to keep rotating people through until there’s a reasonable profit-sharing program for benefits.”

More Than Money

Across the board, the same two big issues are coming up again and again for personalization employers: wages and benefits.

Many are paying more for lower-ranking positions, but there’s a limit to what they can afford, especially with high competition for talent and supply chain issues that are raising production costs.

Warren lost one employee to a large national insurance company that offered her a work-from-home position for 50% more than he was paying. “We could not compete with wages that high. We were paying her above what most other companies in our industry pay, and we have better benefits than many similar companies,” he says. “We have had to increase wages by 15% to 30% for full-time employees, and we still have a hard time competing with larger companies.” Warren says the company would have to significantly raise prices to pay employees’ higher wages and higher vendor prices.

“It boils down to you have to pay more, but that can be really hard for small shops,” says Della Badia. “When you turn on the TV and see Amazon is paying $20 [an hour] and McDonald’s is providing school reimbursements, it’s hard if you’re a small shop.”

That’s why raising pay alone is often not enough. To compete for top employees, Marking Products has in recent years increased wages, added a retirement program with a company match, added Aflac, Inc. supplemental insurance with a company match, added an additional paid holiday and has tried to be “more understanding and flexible regarding personal matters that require time off the job,” Jackson says.

Higginbotham has been considering Aflac in lieu of employer-sponsored health insurance. “We always look at benefits and do our best, but the big one that we just can’t add to the mix is healthcare. It’s just crazy expensive,” she says. “We tried, and one of our employees had to cut back to part-time because the rate she could get through the marketplace was cheaper than the contribution she would have to make to be on our plan.”

What Higginbotham has been able to afford is offering employees a Costco membership. “The team loved it,” she says.

Creative Perks

In addition to higher pay, employees are looking for flexibility and other perks. Work-from-home isn’t an option for many customer-facing awards and personalization jobs, so owners are doing what they can—and getting creative. What they can’t provide in dollars, they are trying to make up for by showing workers they care.

“We’re a family-owned and operated business. We have employee appreciation days and holiday parties,” Della Badia says. “We try to make the employee feel like family.”

Lisa Higginbotham (right), CRM, president and owner, with an employee at FiveStar Awards & Engraving.

Like Della Badia, Higginbotham prioritizes get-togethers. At her company, they celebrate employee birthdays and work anniversaries and have occasional team breakfasts. Sometimes, Higginbotham orders in lunch for everyone. “We were doing quarterly outings before COVID, and I want to do those again,” she says. “In April, one of the chambers we belong to did a volunteer day, and I closed the office that morning so we could volunteer as a team to serve the community.”

She has an outside human resources person on retainer, so employees have a safe space to discuss concerns with someone other than the chain of command.

“Flexibility is key,” Higginbotham adds, which is why she has been rewriting all of her job descriptions and considering staggered shifts and hybrid positions that combine on-site and remote work. It’s not always possible, but remote or flexible work when she is able to offer it is appealing to applicants. Higginbotham recently hired a graphic designer to work completely remotely.

“Many people want to work from home, which doesn’t work well for most production jobs or showroom customer service,” Warren says. “We have found that we can get plenty of part-time employees who are retired and want to work only 10 to 20 hours per week.” The extra hands have been great, he says, although hiring more part-time workers means having to spend more time training, and he adds that part-time retirees aren’t particularly interested in learning new technologies.

To help boost morale, FiveStar Awards & Engraving prioritizes get-together with staff.

Williams pays close attention to the fact that younger and older employees might be looking for different job benefits. “The older employees are not as concerned about money like the new employees,” he says. “They’re more concerned about time—time with their families or interests.”

He purchased a new laser that cuts engraving time in half, reducing the need for overtime. At the same time, investing in better technology also helps recruit younger workers. “By having new, up-to-date software, they felt they would learn something. That’s what attracted the younger people,” Williams says.

If all goes well, these younger workers will stay on for the long term, then perhaps the company can spend less energy on recruiting and focus more on retention. Jackson says that if there’s one thing he’s learned over the past few years, it’s that it pays to show your workers how much you value them. “Appreciate your good people, and take good care of them,” he says.

5 Under-the-Radar Ways to Fill Open Jobs

If job postings aren’t getting the response you were hoping for, try these tips for putting your best recruiting foot forward.

Out-of-the-Box Perks
Many small businesses can’t afford to offer standard benefits, like health insurance and retirement plans. But there are many other ways to make employees happy. Consider group activities like monthly karaoke nights or annual family field days. Could you let people bring their dogs to work? Also consider partnering with local shops for discounts, such as a reduced group rate for a gym membership.

Referral Bonuses
Many employers find that their own employees make the best recruiters. Offer incentives to workers to bring candidates for open positions. If they get the job, reward the referrer with a prize or cash bonus.

Retool Your Staff
Maybe the person you need is someone you already have. This might be a good time to look at your company to see if a reorganization can move people into new positions where they could be more effective and productive.

Business Programs
Even people who have been running their own businesses for a long time always have more to learn. Check out courses and development programs such as Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses; Ascend, which offers opportunities in more than a dozen cities for businesses owned by people of color and women; and the Small Business Administration’s Learning Platform. These programs can help take your business to the next level—and attract next-level talent.

Get on Social Media
Sure, social media is good for branding and announcing sales or product releases, but did you know it can also help attract talent? According to recruiting platform iCIMS, social media allows potential employees to get a feel for the company before they apply, boosting your chances of finding a candidate who’s a good fit.

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