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Jax Daily Record Friday, Nov. 23, 201801:00 AM EST

The hiring challenge: With Northeast Florida unemployment less than 3 percent, how is business coping?

Here is a snapshot of how business, government and other agencies are managing in a tight job market.

If you live in Northeast Florida and want a job, the chances that you’ll get what you want are better now than at any time in the past 12 years.

According to data published last week by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the jobless rate in the five-county Jacksonville metropolitan area is the lowest since early 2006.

In terms of numbers, the unemployment rate in the area is less than 3 percent. That’s made more significant when the data indicated that jobs were gained in the market from October 2017 through October 2018.

Employers are finding it challenging to recruit and retain the quality workforce they need. They’re finding that it takes more than competitive wages and benefits to ensure their success.

The jobs landscape in Northeast Florida has changed and that likely will continue, so people looking to hire and people looking to be hired are changing along with it.

JAXUSA Partnership: ‘It's a good news, bad news scenario’

City Council President Aaron Bowman also is senior vice president of business development at the JAXUSA Partnership, the economic development division of JAX Chamber. In that role, Bowman helps with job recruitment.

While he believes the local area is at full employment, he said there’s still room for people who are underemployed to upgrade to a new job, and for those who either left the workforce or weren’t searching to find new work.

“It’s a good news, bad news scenario,” he said. “People who are looking for a job are being very successful but employers are having a tough time finding the correct talent.”

Bowman says employee availability is usually the primary driver when companies decide to expand in Jacksonville or another city. He said Jacksonville is competitive because the annual growth rate of 2 percent has been steady for the last decade and is higher than the national and state averages.

Lower taxes and lower capital costs to get started also are factors.

“We have 3,000 service members leaving active duty in the Jacksonville area every year and they’re sought by virtually every industry,” he said.

Still, Jacksonville has challenges.

Bowman says he sees a shortage of medical care and IT professionals. He said demand for skilled craftsmen to work with machinery or high-tech manufacturing is increasing.

He said it’s important for Duval County Public Schools to remain focused and engaged with the business community to prepare high school graduates for good careers.

“Industry needs to continue to grow internships and co-op programs so they can train people for skills along the way on their education path,” he said.

“We need to always be cognizant of our quality of life in Jacksonville so people have a desire to move here and not want to leave.”

Education: Helping local companies fill positions

Florida State College at Jacksonville spokeswoman Jill Johnson said FSCJ works with employers throughout Duval and Nassau counties to fill vacancies in their organizations.

“Most of the programs we offer are currently in high demand as we work closely with our employers to create high-need programs aligned with the current job market,” she said.

Johnson, director of marketing and communications, said FSCJ staff routinely visit area businesses to discuss how the college can meet their needs.

“We take employer feedback very seriously and make adjustments to the programs to ensure we are meeting employer demands,” she said.

Johnson said FSCJ sees employee shortages in health care (nursing, dental, medical assisting, surgical tech, physical and occupational therapy assistant, surgical technology, medical assisting, paramedic); sales; IT; education; customer service; logistics; and police and fire, among others.

“We also speak to many employers requesting additional employees and training in areas such as advanced manufacturing, health care entry level workers, automotive, welding, electrical, HVAC, commercial truck drivers and medium and large diesel/bus technicians,” she said.

The college finds that students are attending FSCJ for career changes or augmentation “to make them more attractive to the ever-changing workforce.”

Johnson said students seek associate and baccalaureate degrees, vocational training and certifications, such as those to take state exams. As it builds degree programs, FSCJ assesses “the education and training needs of the local community to provide our students the skills needed to enter the job market.”

She said vocational training programs provide students with an industry credential that is in demand regionally, statewide and nationally.

“We regularly have employers send us job postings that we submit directly to our students. Employers are aware that we have students in these fields who are job-ready, some before they have completed their programs,” she said.

The Courts: Little turnover in the 4th Judicial Circuit

 Fourth Judicial Circuit Trial Court Administrator Joe Stelma and his staff of about 1,200 people provide support to the judicial system in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties.

Their work includes budget and finance, purchasing, technology, facilities maintenance, capital improvement and human resources.

“We don’t have a problem filling our positions, Stelma said. “We have a dedicated staff and very little turnover in court administration. We advertise and visit the colleges to recruit.”

Retail: Trying creative ways to find workers

Jacksonville-based Stein Mart Inc. CEO Hunt Hawkins agrees the labor market is tight and that employers need to be creative to attract new hires.

For example, the company held a hiring event for its stores in October that included emailing to the company’s Preferred Customer list “to let them know we were hiring.”

 The company also changed its in-store announcements to entice shoppers to work at Stein Mart and set up tables in stores in some understaffed markets to promote hiring.

Hunt said the October event was successful and the company hired hundreds of new store employees.

Northeast Florida Counties: Looking beyond ‘bedroom community’

The counties that surround Duval County have a lot of competition from their large neighbor — Jacksonville — when it comes to attracting and retaining employees in today’s tight job market.

But officials from those adjacent counties —  Baker, Clay, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns — say they use their strengths to convince people to live and work there.

For example, the executive director of Baker’s chamber of commerce said Baker always will be a suburb of Jacksonville, but that many people live there because it’s a slower-paced environment.

“But we can be so much more than we are today,” said Darryl Register. “I expect that we will continue to grow and get careers that will provide wages that will allow people to stay. We have tried to prepare and plan for the growth coming. We hope we can somehow maintain the nature of the county.”

St. Johns, Clay and Nassau officials say they also deal with the issue of seeing a large number of their residents commute into Duval for work.

Laura DiBella, executive director of Nassau’s Economic Development Board, said the county attempts to stay competitive with things like apprenticeship programs and working with area universities to identify needs in the county’s workforce.

JJ Harris, the president of Clay’s Economic Development Council, said similar efforts happen in his county, where junior and high school students are offered career and technical programs and that St. Johns River State College has developed training specific to the needs of local industries.

“Any community surrounding a major metropolitan area is going to be considered a ‘bedroom community’ and have a commuting workforce,” he said. “However, our savvy business owners see the cost savings and reduced turnover of placing their location where the employees already reside.”

Melissa Glasgow, economic development director for St. Johns, said the commuters are likely making higher salaries in Duval, but that some companies and commuting professionals are opening small offices in St. Johns “so they can spend more time with their families.”

CareerSource Northeast Florida: ‘Any door you knock on needs employees’

Candace Moody, vice president of communications with CareerSource Northeast Florida, said the economy is “red hot.”

“Any door you knock on needs employees,” she said.

She sees an employee shortage in information technology and a need among manufacturers for employees who can manage automated technologies. To prove the economy’s strength, sometimes tough-to-place liberal arts majors are finding jobs because of their critical thinking and writing skills.

Employers remain in touch with colleges and vocational schools while CareerSource promotes training scholarships for high-skill and high-demand jobs.

Seasonal jobs are picking up, too, as UPS and start holiday hiring.

Employers are paying more to attract, retain and compete to avoid losing trained employees to a competitor paying 25 cents an hour more.

Some companies are inventive, she said. Florida Blue has a program that hires workers for nine months and pays for 12.

Small Business: Paying $3,000 to find a manager

Southern Grounds coffee shop partner Mark Janasik said his group spends a lot of time attracting and retaining talent because retention drives sales.

One of the biggest industry challenges is the declining teen and college-age workforce and he sees recruiting agency fees for manager-level talent increasing.

His group is paying $3,000 a position to a recruiting firm for experienced managers. His group invests time mentoring, coaching and recruiting from within. The changes made the company stronger.

 “We have become more innovative in recruiting new employees,” Janasik said. “We find employees are looking for career packages that outline career mobility, work-life balance and companies that value social responsibilities.”

Health care: Technology roles challenging to fill

Florida Blue’s Vice President of Talent Management Phillip Zoller said Jacksonville’s job market is tight, and that it often sees many people seeking the same positions within the company. 

“The challenge for the folks applying for the same positions is that we screen and hire based on cultural and role fit, as well as potential,” Zoller said. He said that significantly narrows the candidate field. 

“The good news is that there’s plenty of employable and talented people out there,” he said. 

Zoller said having an established and skilled workforce and a talent feeder system from local schools is critical when the company decides to relocate or expand in a new location.

He said analytical roles and those in technology can be challenging to fill. Zoller said the company addresses that by having strong partnerships with local colleges and with Florida Blue’s internal development programs. 

He said Jacksonville, or anywhere else in Florida, continues to be “a wonderful destination to work and live, raise a family or launch a career.”

Builders: Wages not enough to retain workers

Doug Moran, COO of Dream Finders Homes, said finding qualified employees is a challenge in the construction industry.

“We’ve seen employee expectations change dramatically. Competitive wages paired with benefits are not enough to attract and retain quality employees anymore,” Moran said. “We feel at Dream Finders we offer a unique environment designed to inspire team members to achieve their professional goals. Collaboration between departments creates an environment for learning and ultimately improves our results and retention.”

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