Most people see low unemployment rates as a good thing, but it hasn’t made Brian Pike’s life any easier.
As operations manager for Dynamic Security in Oxford, Pike makes his living recruiting private security guards, training them and sending them to local businesses to work.
Lately, though, Pike finds that as soon as guards know their way around the job, they’re off for another job somewhere else.
“We’re just a steppingstone,” Pike said.
Security guard is one of the toughest jobs to fill in the relatively robust Alabama economy of 2019, if figures from the Alabama Department of Labor are any indication.
Unemployment statewide was at 4 percent in November, the last month for which numbers are available. That marks a year of jobless numbers at or near the lowest levels the state has ever recorded. The labor market is tight, and for some employers, that could be a problem.
The Anniston Star asked Labor Department officials for a list of the jobs that are toughest to fill in an economy where workers, at least on paper, would seem to have more choices than in the past.
Labor officials responded by looking at the state’s own job boards, where a third of jobs get filled within a month, and most within 90 days.
As of last week, a few dozen jobs had been open for four months, unfilled.
There were high-skilled jobs. Nursing. Software developer. Computer security.
There were jobs where workers deal directly with customers and don’t get great pay, such as retail sales (average pay: $23,000 per year according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics) and cashiers ($21,000 per year).
And there were jobs that were, well, jobs, such as security guards ($27,000 per year), janitors ($28,000 per year) and fast food ($21,000 per year).
Kelly Betts, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, said that list hasn’t changed much over the years, even as the economy has improved. The only change is that jobs are even tougher to fill.
At local staffing agencies, managers said many of the best-paying jobs remain open because there’s no one with the skills to fill them.
“If I had 20 welders come in right now, I could get work for every one of them,” said Rusty Simmons, owner of Simmons Staffing in Anniston. He also cited a need for carpenters and electricians. None of those were on the statewide list of hard-to-fill jobs.
There’s often a skills gap with lower-paying jobs, too.
“The majority of the problem is finding people with a clean criminal background and a driver’s license,” Simmons said.
Teaching doesn’t appear on the Labor Department list,even though lawmakers have fretted for years about a looming shortage.
Amy Marlowe, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Education Association, said that shortage is finally here.
“It used to be something we only heard about in the summertime,” she said, citing the prime hiring period for school systems. “It used to be mostly math and science teachers. Now school systems are having trouble finding enough elementary teachers. That’s indicative of a shortage.”
Math and science teachers, who often have degrees in the fields they teach, have higher-pay options outside of education, Marlowe noted. Elementary teachers, on the other hand, typically have degrees in elementary or early childhood education, and have fewer options outside the school system.
Marlowe said the shortage may have less to do with the tight labor market and more to do with a declining number of college students seeking education degrees. She said school administrators keep close tabs on the number of graduates at colleges that have historically produced a lot of teachers — Jacksonville State being at the top of that list.
“We’re hearing that by the time Calhoun County, Jacksonville and Piedmont gobble them up, there aren’t a lot of new teachers left from Jacksonville State,” she said.
It’s typical for government jobs to lose some of their appeal in a good economy. Jobs in uniform — whether in government or in the private sector — appear to be hard to fill as well.
Local police chiefs have complained for years that their employees are quick to move up to bigger cities that offer more pay. At the Calhoun County Jail, where there’s constantly a shortage of corrections officers, Sheriff Matthew Wade has cited competition from those local police forces as a problem. Guards move up to become officers on patrol.
Even Pike, the Dynamic Security manager, loses employees to law enforcement. Criminal justice students and aspiring police officers come to him for experience, he said, and they leave soon. Dynamic works like a temp agency, sending guards to businesses who pay those guards directly. Pike said the pay often isn’t enough.
“Sometimes, you can make as much in fast food,” he said.
Alabama doesn’t have a state-level minimum wage, which means the federal $7.25 applies.
A year ago, when Alabama’s unemployment hit a record low of 3.8 percent, economist wondered when the tight labor market would lead to wage increases. Current state numbers show an average increase of about a dollar an hour over the last year.
Ryan Nunn, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, said wages are going up nationwide as well, though it’s not an impressive increase when adjusted for inflation.
“One obvious thing is that employers are slow to adjust to new market realities,” he said. Nunn heads up Brookings’ Hamilton Project, which has looked at wages over recent decades — and found that despite increased worker productivity, increases have gone mostly to higher-income workers.
Nunn said there could be other reasons, besides market sluggishness, to explain slow wage growth. One is a kind of employer monopoly: people in small towns may have only one employer hiring in their field, and no competitor looking to hire them away.
Another could be competition from the people economists once called “discouraged workers.” People who dropped out of the workforce entirely in tougher times may be back in and competing for jobs.
“There may have been more labor market slack than we knew,” he said.