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Shortly before Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, Macy's placed an online ad seeking seasonal help for its South Portland store.
No experience necessary. Full-time work. A 20% merchandise discount, starting the first day of employment. And the ad promised even more:
“Advanced scheduling: Know your schedule six weeks in advance! Easy application process: Apply in as little as 10 minutes! Get hired today: Two easy ways to apply!”
Macy's, which declined to comment on the plea, showed an urgency that is understandable in today's job market — an urgency that might sound familiar to other employers.
Maine's unemployment rate in October amounted to just 3.4%, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Maine Department of Labor. That level was even lower than the U.S. rate of 3.7%, and nearly unchanged from Maine's September rate of 3.3% and from 3.2% the previous October.
In fact, October 2018 was the 35th consecutive month in which Maine recorded an unemployment rate below 4%, the longest such period since it began tracking the percentage.
While questions persist about how long unemployment will remain this low, Maine employers are facing an ever greater scarcity of job-seekers. Around the state, employers are stepping up their hiring efforts, offering signing bonuses, a wider range of benefits, flexible work arrangements and, with some reluctance, higher pay. Often with no applicants to show for the added perks.
“It's brutal,” says Scott Dugas, owner of Yarmouth-based Scott Dugas Trucking & Excavating, which has had an ongoing opening for two mechanics to keep the heavy machinery in working order.
Dugas has advertised the jobs in a variety of online media and says his company offers competitive wages and a generous benefits package. But the enticements have been of little use.
“The past year has been the worst [hiring market] in the 40 years we've done business,” he says, adding that he doesn't want to raid his competitors.
“I don't really want to take my competitors' employees because most of us are friends and I don't want to lose my employees to them,” Dugas adds. “I think the answer is to get employees from areas where there are no jobs — Downeast, northern Maine. The problem is that housing has gotten so costly that those people can't move.”
It's the same story around the state.
In Machias, Freshies convenience store advertised a shift leader opening with an array of health benefits and perks that included discounts on heating oil, propane and natural gas.
At the Kittery Trading Post, the employee discount is 30%. Most workers also receive holiday pay, profit sharing, merchandise loans and charge accounts at the hunting and camping goods store, according to its website.
Throughout the state, car dealerships and garages are luring service technicians with sign-on bonuses as large as $10,000. A Presque Isle hair salon offered stylists $1,000 for joining. Mainers are receiving hundreds of dollars in incentives to become newspaper carriers and bus drivers, restaurant servers and highway rest-stop cleaners.
Bonuses are also a popular recruiting tool among Maine police forces.
Westbrook last summer advertised $14,000 bonuses for new officers with five years' experience. Portland offers a bonus of $10,000, and earlier this year relaxed rules that had barred non-citizens and recent users of marijuana from joining the police department.
Other employers are also impatient with the hiring crunch, according to James Brissenden, a board member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Maine council and business development director for Clark Insurance in Portland.
“Everyone's making a mad dash for talent, and there's a sense that the clock is ticking,” Brissenden says. “It's difficult just to find bodies.”
While it may challenge HR professionals, a low unemployment rate is generally considered a sign of a strong economy. By that measure, Maine is doing well, says Glenn Mills, the Labor Department's chief economist.
“We're in a very good situation,” Mills says. “It would be very difficult for it to get any better.”
Another economist wonders how long Maine can sustain such a low jobless rate.
“There is plenty of uncertainty and disagreement,” says Philip Trostel, an economics professor at the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. “History over recent decades suggests that the current low unemployment rate is not sustainable. But the fact that there is still no strong evidence that wages are rising rapidly suggests the current rate is.”
Sustainable or not, the statewide unemployment level says little about the strength of local economies.
October data show unemployment rates of 2.6% in Sagadahoc County and 2.7% in Cumberland County, both up slightly from 2.3% from 2017. But October unemployment levels reached 4.4% in Aroostook and Washington counties. And in Oxford County, the rate jumped from 3.2% in 2017 to 4%.
Disparities extend to the industries where jobs are growing.
Health care and social services are thriving businesses for the state. In October, these sectors employed 2,200 more Mainers than the January 2017 number of 104,700, according to Labor Department estimates. By contrast, the number of trade, transportation and utilities jobs was 120,400 in October, a slight decline over the previous 21 months.
Maine's unemployment rate also doesn't reveal the level of under-employment.
In 2017, 26,000 residents — more than the number of those who were jobless — worked part-time because of the lack of full-time openings, according to an analysis by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank. Data also showed that much of the state's workforce is seasonal, with one-third not working year-round at a single job.
Part-time and seasonal workers are five times more likely to be living in poverty than full-time and year-round employees, the analysis noted.
“Despite low unemployment and recent economic growth, too many Maine workers and families struggle to make ends meet. Middle-class jobs have disappeared in large numbers and are being replaced by low-wage jobs with greater uncertainty,” policy analyst James Myall wrote in the center's report.
Maine's part-time employees make up about a quarter of its workforce, which is higher than the U.S. ratio of 17.4%, according to federal government data for October. But Maine isn't that unusual when it comes to jobs.
“Maine's economy is seasonal, but the same is true elsewhere,” says Trostel. “Different states have different natural resources, different industries. But those differences aren't so great as popular perception holds.”
Mills agrees. While seasonality and the state's much-publicized aging demographics are factors in unemployment, they are only part of the picture.
“By and large, Maine is similar to the rest of the nation,” he says. “There's an ongoing rotation out of some jobs and toward others. It's pretty common to say that Maine is unique [in its employment], but it's really not.”
Aware that they're in high demand, more and more candidates are vanishing without a trace during the recruitment process, blowing off scheduled job ainterviews and even failing to report for their first day of work. While no one formally tracks “ghosting,” businesses report that 20% to 50% of job applicants and employees now engage in the behavior, USA Today reported in July.
Bryn Carlson, former human resources manager at Apothecary By Design in Portland, has had to deal with ghosts as part of her current work for a Boston-area pharmacy.
“That's been one of the most frustrating things about finding employees in Massachusetts,” she says. “We've been understaffed there for so long, and good recruiting simply requires a ton of input and time.”
The leverage held by job applicants has already affected hiring in other ways. Some interviews that would once have been conducted in person are now being done by phone.
“Recruiters everywhere are having to move quicker now,” Carlson says. “With this tight market, you can't always go through the full vetting process during the interview stage, involving every tier of management in the process. Companies are fighting for talent and wasted time spent on additional interviews can cost you a quality candidate.”
Maine schools will likely be increasingly important to Maine employers, says Brissenden, the spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management.
“There's a huge focus on internships right now,” he says. “Out of necessity, businesses here are getting recruitment going at an earlier stage. The reality is, you need to be in front of (potential recruits) not just when they're in college, but even in high school or middle school.”
That advice is echoed by Sarah Cox, human resources vice president at L.L.Bean, which employs 4,900 year-round workers.
Although “we have realized our challenges this year due to the tight labor market,” Cox says by email, “we have increased our focus on internships, which … build a strong pipeline for recruiting, developing and retaining future talent.”
Cox says L.L.Bean has also responded through more flexible scheduling and options such as allowing its 1,500 seasonal customer service representatives to work from home.
Brissenden recommends that employers become more flexible in considering non-traditional types of hires, such as veterans, people with disabilities, Maine's immigrant population and workers with prison records.
Whether or not these groups can help fill the labor shortage may hinge on the availability of outside resources, such as language training for new residents. Chambers of commerce, the Society for Human Resource Management and other nonprofits can help.
“It's a matter of cultural competency, of two-way learning,” Brissenden says. “The question is whether Maine business is disposed for such a diverse population in a sustainable way. Because of the pressures involved these days, that conversation is moving fast.”