Waco is either suffering from a lack of good, well-paying jobs or a lack of dependable, qualified workers.
It can’t be both, can it?
At the monthly meeting of the Greater Waco Economic Index last week, a number of employers talked at length about their challenges to recruit and maintain qualified workers in this area. Most cited the labor pool as their biggest challenge moving forward in 2015.
Skilled labor — particularly in trades like carpentry, plumbing and bricklaying — are even more in demand in the Central Texas region.
The idea of employers facing a shortage of qualified workers stands in stark contrast to efforts by such groups as Prosper Waco to address the issue of chronic poverty in Waco. The comprehensive effort behind Prosper Waco includes a number of key focus areas related to jobs, including pay scales and benefits. In fact, the organization has made a point to include the business community in trying to address those concerns. The poverty rate in Waco is around 30 percent.
Unemployment rates in the Waco and McLennan County areas have returned to pre-recession levels — 4.2 percent in March — and the specter of a labor shortage seems, well, sudden. Yet the unemployment rate here has dropped almost 2 percentage points in the past 12 months and there is no question the labor market is heating up nationwide.
Demand is so high in the trade crafts that one employer at the GWEI meeting said his company had increased starting wages as much as 30 percent and offers on-the-job training in trying to find workers. Incredibly, those efforts are not paying dividends in recruitment so far.
Texas Workforce Commission data show 4,800 people in McLennan and Falls counties are seeking employment. Four percent or lower is generally considered full employment — or very close to it — within any economy. The U.S. employment rate was 5.6 percent in March, with the state of Texas at 4.2 percent. So who are these 4,800 people? Why can’t they find a job?
As one employer put it last week, finding workers who can pass a drug screening is a huge challenge. Another said finding someone to show up and go through orientation — and perhaps work past 10 o’clock on their first morning — is also a persistent problem.
The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce is making expansion of the workforce a priority, including working with Baylor University to keep a larger percentage of its students here after they graduate.
A chamber representative last week said lateral movement in the local job market is quite heavy right now, with workers moving from one job to the next for even the smallest increase in pay.
There is unquestionably a disconnect between some who seek employment and some who seek to hire new workers. Clearly, jobs are available across the spectrum here in Waco. In many cases, those jobs require specific skills. Some, however, do not and include on-the-job training. According to the employers we heard from last week, jobs are here for the taking for anyone who doesn’t use drugs and is willing to work.
As this recent recession continues to ebb and the job market heats up even more, wage pressure will eventually return. Employers who want workers will have to pay more to get them — and keep them. Some large corporations, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, have raised their starting salaries well above the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Others are sure to follow suit.
What remains to be seen here in Waco is whether this labor shortage is real or perceived, and whether or not those 4,800 people really want to work or not.
Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email email@example.com.