Looking at the entrances to many businesses throughout Hardin County, it is easy to see that employers are having difficulty filling vacant positions.
Addressing this problem and its root causes was the topic of discussion Wednesday for the fourth annual State of the Workforce Summit, hosted by the Lincoln Trail Workforce Crisis Task Force.
The task force, convened by the Lincoln Trail’s Workforce Development Board, hosted more than 80 community members, business owners, hiring managers, service providers and educators for the online event.
Building on research and information provided by consultants from Strategy Matters, a Boston-based consulting firm who has a contract with the development district since 2017, discussion centered around problems with transportation, child care, livable wages, unemployment assistance, changing the narrative around the needed skills of the workforce, self-sufficiency and inclusive work environments.
“When (Strategy Matters) did our first strategic plan, we were already in a crisis because we didn’t, quite frankly, have enough people to fill the positions in 2017 that we needed,” said Sherry Johnson, Lincoln Trail Area Development District Deputy Director. “So we were having to look at what variables were out there and how we could grow our own and what we needed to do to get those who were not participating in the work force participating.”
The workforce shortage is a multi-faceted problem, with not one problem the obvious reason for the lack of suitable candidates for jobs.
Johnson said those problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I think they’re still there,” she said. “I think they’re probably exponentially greater at this point. But I also believe that there are people that are scared to go back to work.”
The summit had two local employers share their experience in job recruitment and offer solutions to some of the problems they faced.
Myra Covault, manager of special projects for Baptist Health Hardin, said the hospital continues to invest in its workforce by paying for higher education opportunities for nurses through partner colleges and universities.
Calling the programs “widely successful,” it allows employees to not only advance their education and skills but earn better wages and the hospital is able to fill higher-skilled positions from within its proven workforce, Covault said.
“Our employees also see us putting our time and energy into them, instead of into unknown workers,” she said.
The health care employer also supplements pay for employees having to move from full-time to part-time in order to pursue those higher education degrees, Covault said.
“We’re at a point that we’re actually looking at expanding that to partnerships with other schools and looking at expanding that to other areas other than just nursing,” she said. “We have shortages in surgical technology, respiratory therapy.”
Covault said another problem Baptist Health Hardin is facing in its recruitment and retaining of employees is the company’s recent decision to require the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Anyone that knows anything about the world knows that COVID is top of mind,” she said, noting later that the health care workforce is dealing with burnout and other problems that persist from working long hours. “Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more challenging, they have with the recent news about vaccine mandates. … At a time when health care recruitment was difficult and challenging as it was pre-pandemic, it has become even more challenging since the pandemic and actually has become even more challenging in the last week.”
Sherry Bell, human resources manager for ORBIS in Bardstown, said the company has tried different strategies, but said conversations with employees have led to many helpful changes.
“Our focus primarily has been on, of course, not just workforce, but also the well-being of the employee,” she said. “So making sure they are not just short-term but with us for the long haul.”
Those conversations led the company to conduct a wage analysis and offer higher wages, adjust schedules for a more “work-life balance” and partner with Nelson County and Bardstown schools to draw younger employees. The company also offers educational advancement opportunities.
Bell said the company also has relied on social media, including Overwatch, as a recruiting tool saying that engaging with commenters is important. She said the company uses social media to announce on-site job fairs saying regional job fairs could be a deterrent to job seekers who may see their current employer there.
“I know that’s been one of the things that many HR professionals are skittish about,” she said about engaging on social media. “We used social media to get the word out.”
Johnson said the summit was an opportunity to share this information with a large number of employers and community leaders in the area in hopes it leads to more discussions and solutions.
“In my closing remarks, I mentioned that the workforce board’s most important role is convening discussion,” she said. “Part of the discussion going forward is coming up with solutions to how we address our workforce crisis right now and how we plan for the future. Because who knows what the next crisis is going to be?”
While the solutions might be a longtime in the making, Johnson said the time to start working toward them is now.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said of solving the problems that have led to the workforce crisis. Some of these issues are going to take years to resolve, but we need to start doing something now so that our local economy can recover and prosper once again.”