West Alabama grapples with worker shortages after COVID pandemic

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There was a time when Tuscaloosa restaurateur Dustin Spruill had a pool of job seekers to fill positions.

Those days, he says, are over.

“It’s a new world,” said Spruill, whose Local Roots restaurant in northern Tuscaloosa opened its first brick-and-mortar operation amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

What started as a food truck in 2016 announced its expansion into a self-contained building in early 2020. Within weeks, those dreams were postponed as the region, state and nation shut down to slow the spread of COVID -19.

And Spruill, who started with a batch of 40 or more candidates seeking to fill cashier and front-of-house positions, saw that total drop to five or less as the region began to re-emerge from its new coronavirus sanctuaries. .

“It’s a fun job and it was always easy to fill,” Spruill said. “It’s not (now).”

Continued: The food truck makes the transition to bricks and mortar

Now fully out of the food truck operation, Spruill is preparing to open a second Local Roots location about an hour away in Cahaba Heights.

This time he hopes to have a grand opening party with live music and lots of attendees. It was something he had planned for the Tuscaloosa store, but COVID-19 restrictions put the brakes on that attempt.

But during this time, he had to adopt new approaches to attract a workforce. Having a team of understanding managers is one, he says, because he finds himself training new people daily to do the same tasks.

Higher salaries, he said, were another.

“A $10-an-hour person doesn’t really exist anymore, and I’m not totally against that,” Spruill said. “But there is a ceiling.”

And that, according to the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, is a challenge facing employers across the region.

Donny Jones, chief operating officer of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and executive director of West Alabama Works, the chamber’s workforce development arm, has been working to support employers and workers since the downturn economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And here, as the world begins to leave behind many of the worries and fears associated with the coronavirus, workplaces are still short of workers.

Continued: ‘Opportunity time for employees:’ Supply of local jobs exceeds demand, officials say

“I think there’s a lot more comfort with the new normal,” Jones said. “We are seeing people feel more comfortable entering the job market.

“And the numbers are going up, but that’s not where it should be because we still have more jobs than we have people in the workforce right now.”

To combat this, Jones and West Alabama Works have been looking for new ways to help companies recruit workers.

He said it took a combination of salary adjustments, training and preparation for the work environment.

There’s also a need to work with supervisors to help them understand how to manage multiple generations of workers, from baby boomers and Gen X to millennials and Gen Z.

Previous cover: Tuscaloosa employers feel a sense of urgency as jobs go unfilled

“We’re helping companies understand that there’s a whole new ecosystem for workforce development,” Jones said. “To recruit the type of employees and the number of employees that they need, they are going to have to deploy a number of different means.”

And while employers scramble to attract new employees, workers always have the upper hand, Jones said.

After all, the dynamics of supply and demand work not only for goods, but also for services, including reliable personnel.

“It’s an employee market,” Jones said. “It’s a great time if people have always wanted to make more money or change careers.”

Contact Jason Morton at [email protected].

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