SPRINGFIELD — Virtually every store, factory, workshop and roadside stand in Greater Springfield has the same sign out front: Help Wanted.
“It’s more challenging,” said Michael J. Galat, vice president of employee services at Springfield-based Big Y Foods. “Definitely more challenging than previously. Applicant flow is low.”
One of the region’s major employers, Big Y has about 12,000 workers across 84 stores in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. It’s one of many companies struggling to staff up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and longer-term trends in employment.
Big Y recently opened a micro fulfilment center in Chicopee and has hundreds of jobs open at its supermarkets, gas and convenience stores, Table & Vine Fine Wines and Spirits stores, and Fresh and Local Distribution Center.
So on Tuesday, Big Y will host its first — since the company was founded in 1936 — “monstrous hiring event” at more than 75 locations. Managers will have job interviews and hire on the spot. Big Y promises all individuals hired on this day will receive a $50 gift card for vendors including Apple and Spotify.
After working through the summer, every Big Y employee, including those newly hired, will receive an employee appreciation bonus in early September. To qualify, employees must have worked during July and August.
“We are going to be filling those positions on the spot,” Galat said. “We are really excited about the things that we have to offer as a company.”
The theme for the event is “It’s More Than Food, It’s My Story.”
“We take the time to invest in our existing employees and our future,” Galat said.
Galat said he wants to keep talk of pay vague, at least in public. But he said Big Y is competitive across all its job descriptions and offers paid time off and other benefit packages. And he pointed to that bonus in the fall.
“We are looking for people to stay with the organization,” he said.
Galat said the volume of applications has picked up in recent days, once signs advertising the hiring events went up in supermarkets and word got out to employees who passed it onto job-searching friends.
Big Y isn’t the only company looking.
Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Delaney’s Markets, Log Cabin and Delaney House, said he has 220 or 250 employees thus far and needs to get over 300 by late summer and early fall as wedding and banquet season heats up.
He said hiring has been slower than it was pre-pandemic.
“It’s a little better than a month or so ago, but it’s still an issue,” he said.
Rosskothen said he’s also increasing wages by about 15%. Banquet servers that were making $16 are now making $18. Line cook wages went up from $18 to $24.
John Maybury, president and owner of Maybury Material Handling of East Longmeadow, said he has six open positions out of a staff of about 98.
“If it gets to 10% we are in trouble because we are not meeting our customer demands,” he said.
Maybury said today’s labor market is less a consequence of COVID-19 than a long-term consequence of an educational system that doesn’t emphasize vocational and technical training and get young people interested in and prepared for industrial and mechanical careers. Maybury does package and product handling and warehousing, work involving lift trucks, warehouse racks and conveyors.
“But the biggest issue is getting people to respond who want a job, and then we have to check for the skill and talent,” he said.
Maybury offers a $500 payment to employees who refer a successful applicant. He said that works. He’s also looking at his wage structure.
“We are trying to stay with the market or ahead of the market,” he said. “Fortunately our business is strong.”
Employment growth is slow despite demand. Greater Springfield gained only 900 jobs in May, according to numbers that came out this week from the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.
That’s a gain of just three-tenths of a percentage point on the month, well short of the 1% gain statewide. Greater Pittsfield gained 700 jobs on the month, for a gain of 1.9% percent.
”What you have to remember is that the economy has gone from zero to 60 in five seconds,” said professor Robert A. Nakosteen of the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “You are going to see some raggedness. As I tell students all the time, get a longer view.”
Employers blame government programs meant to cushion the blow of COVID-19, including a $300-a-week add-on to state unemployment benefits that expires in September. But Nakosteen is skeptical of claims that the $300 is really keeping people away from work.
“When you dig into it, what you find is that they can’t find workers at the wages they are offering,” Nakosteen said.
He said the worker participation rate has been falling for years, particularly among older white men. Economists have theories but no real knowledge of why.
Nakosteen added that many people are still concerned about COVID-19 exposure, especially in public-facing jobs like retail. And schools and day cares are still closed or at least operating with restricted capacity.
“So a lot of people are having a hard time trying to figure out, even if they do want to go back to work, who will look after their kids,” he said.
Many schools plan to reopen in the fall, so we’ll learn more in a few months, Nakosteen said.
What he sees in the national numbers is a rising level of “quits,” that is, people leaving jobs presumably comfortable in the knowledge that they’ll find something better.
“We have a labor market that is for the first time in years and years tilted toward labor,” he said.
Kate Keiderling, director of human resources and environmental health and safety at roofing product manufacturer OMG in Agawam, echoed those sentiments.
“I think it’s an employee-choice market right now. Employees have a choice,” she said. “They have opportunities.”
OMG is looking to add 60 people to its staff of about 550, said Hubert McGovern, president and CEO.
The company is looking at its wage structure, emphasizing an employee referral program and building a workplace culture similar to the one Big Y talks about.
“For us here, we develop a sense of community,” Keiderling said.