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The struggle to hire is real: Lynchburg-area businesses seeking more employees but coming up short as COVID restrictions lighten

The struggle to hire is real: Lynchburg-area businesses seeking more employees but coming up short as COVID restrictions lighten

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Many businesses in the area are having trouble hiring right now — it’s a problem across every sector, from retail to restaurants and manufacturing, according to Tim Saunders, business engagement and outreach coordinator for Virginia Career Works.

“I talked to a restaurant owner in Bedford last week who said he waited three weeks to receive just one application for an opening in his kitchen,” he said. “Sam Moore Furniture is trying to fill around 20 openings at its Bedford factory. Liberty University has a quite a few openings for contact center agents. Frito-Lay has taken the step of advertising its openings on digital billboards around the area.”

The Central Virginia Workforce Development Board creates and sustains connections between businesses and job seekers through a statewide network of employment professionals.

Saunders held a job fair two weeks ago for the Concentrix call center on Old Forest Road, as it are trying to fill more than 80 customer service positions.

“We advertised the event on television, shared flyers with our partners, and sent direct messages to more than 7,000 people,” he said. “Despite those efforts, only 13 people showed up to apply for positions during the three-day job fair event.”

Saunders said some employers are offering incentives to attract applicants such as sign-on bonuses for maintenance workers, seasonal employees and other jobs.

He said he can’t point to one reason alone to explain the difficulty employers are experiencing with hiring right now but believes a number of factors are driving the issue.

“I do expect our employers to see more applicants when the state brings back the work search requirement for unemployment claimants in early June,” he said.

The Virginia Employment Commission announced earlier in April that jobless workers collecting unemployment benefits will be required to report looking for work beginning in early June.

As of right now, between 1,600 and 1,700 people in the Lynchburg area are filing weekly unemployment claims, Tim Saunders said.

“I am already talking with employers about the possibility of holding job fairs in late May and early June, to accommodate the expected increase in applicants and hopefully connect job seekers with good opportunities,” he said.

The Texas Inn is seeking all positions, including cooks, servers, and prep staff.

“The majority of our problems right now are directly related to COVID shutdown, 50% capacity and the stimulus packages,” said owner Dave Saunders.

He had 29 employees across the two locations — one downtown and another in Cornerstone — and when COVID-19 hit last spring, he went to having only 12.

“When in-store dining opened back up and we were allowed to have diners in, we added back employees fairly rapidly,” he said.

He said he doesn’t blame anyone for living off the stimulus package or unemployment benefits but said it’s made hiring an extremely difficult process.

“So our salary for preps and cooks has gone up and our hourly rate has gone up significantly more; however, it’s gone up everywhere else as well,” Saunders said. “Our hourly rate for certain positions have increased by more than 25%.”

He said there is a high competition for the labor pool and other larger companies may be able to advertise for positions and can pay higher wages but it’s the smaller, independent companies that are facing the brunt right now.

“It’s a double whammy. We’re paying more in wages than ever and getting less in revenue because the government has cut our business in half,” he said.

Saunders said forward-seeking job hunters should go out now and find the job they want because once enhanced unemployment benefits run out, there will be fewer jobs and more job seekers.

“If you get a job now and hang on to it, you’ll be a good position,” he said. “The end is nigh, it’s coming, and it’s going to be a gold rush to try and find jobs when the dynamics switch.”

The Academy Center of the Arts at 600 Main St. was forced to cut about 25% of its payroll last summer as part of a massive expense reduction to get through the year. Now it’s in the process of hiring for those positions that require public engagement as summer concert series and education programming ramps back up.

Geoff Kershner, executive director at the Academy, said he has received many applications for an open graphic designer position, along with a few others, and he speculates people are enticed to work at the center because of its unique venue and exciting programming.

“Especially for the front-of-house positions, I think because of the uniqueness of the hours that are kind of flexible and different, I’m not hearing that we’re having those issues or problems,” he said.

A new job the Academy is hiring for due to COVID-19 is for its new mobile arts unit launching this year. The unit is a converted school bus that will go into the community to provide art instruction.

“It was kind of in the works pre-COVID, but we really committed to it because it’s something we know now has a future,” he said. “Because it’s a mobile unit we can do things outside and we’re not restricted by the enclosures on our campus. And that program is a bit of a product of the moment.”

The Water Dog is hiring for all positions at its restaurant at 1016 Jefferson St., but mostly because this is its peak season.

Dave Henderson, owner of The Water Dog, said just like any other business owner, he is relying on good weather to bring more customers in.

“I think the challenge for us is that we’re also coming out of this pandemic to a degree,” he said.

With that in mind, more customers are ready to dine out, which calls for increased staff at area restaurants.

Henderson said it’s not just about the atmosphere and the work culture for prospective applicants, it’s also about the bottom line financially.

“People need to make a living wage and The Water Dog is 100% for the increase of minimum wage because it’s getting it’s getting individuals who need those increases one step closer to a living wage,” Henderson said, referring to the minimum wage which is set to increase to $9.50 on May 1.

Simplimatic Automation in Forest is hiring for a purchasing agent and buyer, a junior buyer and expediter and stockroom clerks.

Lee Crawford, marketing manager, said for the most part, these are positions the company would normally be hiring for, except for stockroom clerks.

“We probably would have those filled if not for the pandemic,” he said.

He said the positions have gotten applicants but some have been under- or over-qualified and some people are making more money through unemployment.

“But we are seeing an uptick in people applying for jobs,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people are sitting by. I think they are trying to get back into it. People are ready to get back to normal.”

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