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Where are the workers in Greater Akron? ‘Right under your nose,’ chamber president says

As businesses have struggled with finding enough employees, Akron-based workforce development agency ConxusNEO decided to find out where the workers have gone.

Its report — titled “Where Are the Workers?” — looks at shifts in employer and jobseeker experiences and attitudes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So where are the workers?

“They’re right under your nose. They’re in your organization,” said Greater Akron Chamber President and CEO Steve Millard, who is also on the ConxusNEO board. “You have to upskill them, and you have to give them reasons to want to stay with you for the long term.”

The work initially focused on Summit, Medina and Portage counties, partly funded by the Summit and Medina Workforce Area, but it eventually expanded into a broader regional 11-county research project, led by the Fund for Our Economic Future

The Akron-area project included discussions with more than 250 employers and 2,400 working age adults in Greater Akron. The broader project included close to 800 employers and nearly 5,000 jobseekers.

“We think that this is…a regional issue because jobs are not necessarily confined to counties, and job seekers are not confined to counties, so understanding how it works in our broader labor market was important,” Millard said.

What did the Where Are the Workers report show?

Twelve-minute surveys were conducted with 2,400 working-age adults 18 and older in Summit, Medina and Portage counties via phone and web, with 800 interviews done per county. Five focus groups are also underway, with six to 10 participants.

Contacts with employers included 254 surveys (122 in Summit, 99 in Portage and 33 in Medina), as well as six employee roundtables.

Partners on the project include ConxusNEO, the Summit and Medina Workforce Area Council of GovernmentsTeam NEO and Fund for Our Economic Future.

The employer side of the work was funded by ConxusNEO with a $25,000 contribution, while the jobseekers side was funded with a $97,200 federal grant awarded from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

On the jobseekers side, 26% said they were laid off during the pandemic, and 28% said they had hours cut or took a pay cut. The research found that the lower a worker’s household income, the more likely they were to have their hours cut.

People are quitting without having jobs lined up, with 56% of those who quit their jobs in the past 12 months not having another job lined up before they quit. Reasons for people leaving their jobs included a toxic work environment, schedule conflicts, being in transition and low pay.

Employees also feel overwhelmed, with 22% reporting calling in sick due to burnout, 40% feeling they had too much to do at work and not enough time to finish everything and 59% reporting increased stress at work since the pandemic in the past 12 months.

Most people without jobs also aren't looking for one — 57% of those currently not employed, according to the research. People currently not employed made up 19% of the respondents.

ConxusNEO Vice President Michelle Collins said that finding requires “further unpack[ing]” and “be[ing] mindful,” as people could be staying home for a variety of reasons, including having a disability or having other medical or health issues, or being a stay-at-home parent.

The research showed the top barriers to employment include pay being too low to support people’s families, health issues, childcare issues, disabilities, concerns for people’s health or the health of their families, lack of training and a criminal record.

Employees feel confident that if they do quit, it’ll be easy to find a replacement job, with nearly 85% of employed people planning to look for another job very or somewhat confident that they’ll be able to find a job with the same income and benefits.

“Employees are feeling a bit emboldened right now to make some different decisions,” Millard said.

People are going to continue to quit, with 22% saying they’ll quit their job and 39% saying they’ll look for a new job in the next 12 months. But Collins said one silver lining is that 53% say they might be convinced to stay in their current job if there were the right incentive, meaning employers need to talk to their employees to find out what could keep them there.

People, especially younger people, are looking for more meaningful work, with almost half of Generation Z workers saying work is more important now than it was pre-pandemic.

Flexibility in working in the office or working from home is important, especially for Black and female workers, Collins said. The research showed 23% of respondents want to work fully from home, 24% want to work mostly from home, 17% want to work mostly from the workplace and 36% want to work fully from the workplace.

Of course, not all businesses can offer work-from-home options, but those that can “have to evaluate how critical that is and what that might do to them as they compete in the workplace,” Millard said.

“Five days a week in the office is probably not going to be the norm for a lot of employers where there is flexibility in the job [on the ability to work from home],” he said.

Summit and Medina Workforce Area Council of Governments Executive Director Christine Marshall, who is also on the ConxusNEO board, said the goal of the survey was to find out what’s keeping people from work. One possibility is people’s attitudes about work changing during the pandemic.

“Do I really want to go back to that place?” she said as a hypothetical. “During the pandemic, when I when I had to stay at home, and I had to assess my life, maybe there's a whole new career path.”


What are employers doing to attract and maintain workers?

In the report, employers said that to attract and hire employees, they’ve increased benefits and salaries, including flexible work hours and hire-on bonuses; expanded job descriptions to reach wider applicant pools and hire less qualified candidates; and partnered with new organizations or training partners.

To retain employees, they said they’ve offered bonuses and incentives, promoted more from within the company and supported their workers gaining new skills, with tuition reimbursement and in-house training.

Collins said competitive wages are only one piece of the puzzle, although she did say it was something employers were “responsive to at least begin to address."

“Quite frankly, our community was probably lagging anyhow in some competitive wages," she said.

But Collins said that’s not enough. It’s not just about the money people are making but the culture and environment at their workplaces and companies.

Automation, training are key for workforce moving forward

Moving forward, Marshall and Millard said some areas that could lead to improvements include automation and training.

On training, Marshall said it’s not employers requesting it — it’s employees themselves, knowing they need training to move forward in their careers.

Millard said automation could replace the need for some entry-level positions, like cashiers or ticket takers. Already, robots are starting to work in restaurants, and people place orders at places like fast food restaurants at a kiosk rather than to a cashier.

“Automation is going to change things, but we're still going to need individuals that can program these automated machines,” Marshall said.

Millard said employers need to be willing to lower the barriers to employment, which also allows people to change career paths or industries.

“I think that path is easier right now because employers are so desperate for people, so they're willing to take a chance with some other folks,” he said. “They're willing to take a chance on reentry. They're willing to take a chance on other populations they weren't necessarily looking at.”

Collins said gig work, like DoorDash or Uber, also is removing about one in five employees from the typical workforce, with attractive features like working on their own schedule and not having a boss.

Marshall noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 1 million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 6.3 million deaths worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. Those people haven't been replaced in the workforce, she said.

Overall, Millard, Collins and Marshall said there are things employers can do to help keep their employees and attract new ones, but it’ll take some creative thinking and doing things in a different way.

“There are reasons that people are leaving jobs that employers can have an impact on, so things like the environment that they create, the culture in their organization, the flexibility of work,” Millard said. “Employers are used to a perspective that says, ‘Well, I'm giving them a job, and that's enough.’ It's not enough just to sort of provide an employment opportunity, even with a good wage. I think people have sort of shifted their mindset in some ways to say that it's got to be worthwhile work. It's got to be work that can be flexible. It's got to be something that I sort of feel passionate about…I think a lot of people have gotten to a point where they want maybe something different from work.”

 More Information     

For more information, contact:

Emily Mills