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‘Every hire is a win’ for hard-pressed employers

Michael Cousineau

Employers have been working overtime and on weekends to fill nearly 39,000 Granite State job openings — double the number two years ago before the pandemic reconfigured the workforce.

On two recent weekends, Amy Brooks and a staffer set up a table at the North Haverhill Fair and the Moose Festival in Colebrook, conducting mini-interviews on the spot for child care jobs.

“This is an experiment,” said Brooks, executive director of Early Care and Education Association. “Every hire is a win.”

Those interviews allowed Brooks’ team to collect information to turn over to specific child care centers for more thorough interviews and quick hires, Brooks said.

Part of an effort to fill more than 200 openings in the Upper Valley and North Country, the approach already has produced seven new hires.

Next stop for Brooks: this weekend’s Lancaster Fair.

The state’s unemployment rate — 2.9% in July — was inching down toward pre-pandemic levels. New Hampshire in July had 24,000 fewer residents working than two years ago, a 3.2% drop. The labor force, meanwhile, had 22,000 fewer people, either working or looking for work. About 2,100 more people were unemployed in July compared to July 2019.

“Unfortunately, everyone who stepped out of the labor force has not returned so the economy, not at full operation, and with high consumer and business demand, has even fewer workers than it had prior to the pandemic when it was struggling even then to find enough workers,” said Brian Gottlob, director of the state’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

“It’s still a little war on talent for companies to land talent,” said Barry Roy, regional president of the Robert Half staffing agency, which has three New Hampshire offices.

Many job hunters are seeking more money, more flexibility and/or a “career promotion,” he said.

“The demand for contractors and consultants and permanent hires is definitely higher than the pool of candidates,” he said.

But the national monthly jobs report out Friday indicated a slowing in hiring. The U.S. Labor Department reported 235,000 jobs were created in August, below expectations.

“Today’s jobs report reflects a major pullback in employment growth likely due to the rising impact of the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy, though August is also a notoriously difficult month to survey accurately due to vacations,” Tony Bedikian, head of global markets at Citizens Bank, said in an email.

“The virus is still weighing heavily on the U.S. jobs recovery, but we may also be seeing tectonic shifts in the workforce as the number of reported job openings remains high.”

In New Hampshire, a new study reiterated how the pandemic had “uneven economic impacts” on the state’s economy.

“(K)ey challenges like the limited availability of childcare or the threat of adverse health impacts may be keeping people from rejoining the workforce,” concluded a study released last week by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.

Neediest industries

For many parents, returning to the workforce first requires finding child care for their little ones.

“We are the workforce behind the rest of the workforce,” Brooks said.

Many positions in the field, she said, only require a criminal background check and either a GED or high school diploma.

“There’s lots of dark classrooms,” Brooks said, because there is “not enough staff to open classrooms.”

Health care and retail continue to top the list of industries with the most online job openings in New Hampshire during June and July, according to Burning Glass Technologies and New Hampshire Employment Security.

Those categories led the list each of the previous two years as well.

In all three periods, job postings for registered nurses predominated, with 1,300-plus each time.

In mid-August, transit and ground passenger transportation had the highest percentage of workers on unemployment, at 15.3%.

Most of those were school bus drivers off for the summer, Gottlob said.

They were followed by administrative and support services employees, with 10% collecting unemployment payments.

In July, a little over 58% of those receiving a check were women, compared with less than 56% in July 2019. Those 44 and under made up almost 41% of all people receiving payments, compared to less than 36% two years earlier.

Workers in those demographics were more likely to have been employed in industries hard hit by the pandemic, such as retail, Gottlob said.

The food-services industry, battered during the pandemic, had only a few hundred former workers still collecting unemployment in mid-August, at a time when that industry had three times as many job openings to fill, he said.

“Some workers are abandoning that industry,” Gottlob said.

Restaurants try to regroup

That isn’t good news for people like Steven Clutter, who owns two Manchester restaurants.

“Awful” is how the owner of the Hanover Street Chophouse and The Crown Tavern describes finding workers to fill about a dozen positions.

Clutter, who has raised his starting pay for dishwashers by $5 an hour in two years, was using traditional online job sites in July.

“I spent probably over a thousand dollars and got no one,” Clutter said.

A few weeks back, he started using a restaurant staffing phone app called Fliptable, recently launched in New Hampshire, that produced three promising candidates to interview.

“My batting average with Flip-table is better than the rest of them, and we’re only three weeks into it,” Clutter said.

The reason for the shrinking pool of potential job hires is “the million-dollar question,” Clutter said.

“Where did everybody go? Where did everybody go?” he said. “Unemployment doesn’t speak to people sitting on the couch, because the percentage is low.”

More than 50 restaurants in New Hampshire are using the Fliptable app, which offers subscriptions ranging from $100 a month or $900 for a year, with an additional cost for multiple locations.

“Most people are hiring for two or three roles per restaurant,” said founder and CEO Kassandra Pike. “It is a matchmaking process.”

The app shows the most-qualified candidates who live closest to the job.

“You don’t have to go through hundreds of resumes that aren’t qualified candidates,” she said.

Virtual job hunters

More than 300 people attended a state virtual job fair last week that featured 30 employers looking to fill 1,800 jobs. Nearly a month earlier, a job fair for the same regions, Monadnock and Dartmouth, drew 430 job seekers, 25 employers and 825 positions. (Four more virtual job fairs are scheduled this month.)

Those checking out last week’s job fair included Janice Young, who had worked as a secretary in Keene until this summer.

The 50-something Swanzey resident was checking out job options even while awaiting word on two other recent job interviews.

“I was surprised how many people were looking for workers,” Young said.

In June, Gov. Chris Sununu cut off enhanced unemployment benefits, knocking some people off the unemployment rolls and eliminating the $300 enhanced weekly benefit for others.

Young wishes she was collecting the extra $300 a week federal payment, set to expire in other states on Monday.

But it wouldn’t have kept her from job-hunting.

“I’d rather work,” Young said.