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Help Wanted: B-N Employers On Hiring Binge

Man speaking with two women
Emily Bollinger
More than 50 employers accepted applications from job candidates at a job fair on June 1 outside Eastland Mall in Bloomington.

Restaurant managers aren't the only employers struggling to hire workers. Many Bloomington-Normal businesses are in competition for new employees as the economy reopens.

Several of the area's largest employers have announced major hiring sprees this year, including State Farm and electric vehicle maker Rivian. But many others also are hiring as pandemic restrictions ease.

Bloomington-Normal has added close to 5,000 jobs from the height of the pandemic shutdowns in March 2020. And by the looks of it, that hiring surge isn't slowing anytime soon.

Jeremy Gray
Jeremy Gray

“You go around Bloomington-Normal there’s ‘Now Hiring’ signs up everywhere you look,” said Jeremy Gray, plant manager at Bridgestone in Normal.

Bridgestone is hiring 30 workers to boost production of tires for industrial and mining equipment — part of a plant expansion that's been in the works since 2018.

Gray said demand for Bridgestone's off-the-road tires has gradually increased since January.

“We started the year producing just slightly under what we had budgeted, but demand has picked up to the point where we need to be producing at levels higher than what we budgeted,” Gray said. “We expect that to continue for the remainder of this year.”

Those 30 jobs will get Bridgestone back to pre-pandemic staffing.

Other companies are hiring over and above previous workforce levels.

Ellen Hook is chief operating officer at Ashley HomeStore in Bloomington. The furniture business is looking to hire more sales reps and office staff.

Hook said Ashley did well during the pandemic; more people working from home decided it was time to spruce up their living (and work) quarters. Thanks to stimulus checks, they were able to do it.

“Some people got hit really hard and some people actually thrived during the pandemic and had more discretionary income,” Hook said.

The pandemic caused other lifestyle changes for people with extra money and time on their hands.

Andy Shirk is president of Beer Nuts in Bloomington.

“People stayed at home, they drank a little bit more beer and they snacked more on Beer Nuts. That was helpful for us," said Shirk, adding demand for Beer Nuts products grew nationwide. They have eight open positions.

Woman reading sheet of paper as man looks on under outdoor tent
Emily Bollinger
More than 50 employers accepted applications from job candidates at a job fair outside Eastland Mall in Bloomington on June 1.

Last week, Beer Nuts and Ashley HomeStore were among more than 50 employers at a job fair outside Eastland Mall in Bloomington. The McLean County Chamber of Commerce hosted the job fair.

Uniform and cleaning company Cintas Corporation also looked for new workers at the job fair. Cintas had 14 open positions, and human resource manager Penny Darnall said filling those jobs has been a struggle.

“(It’s) not easy. We don’t have a whole lot of people applying. We have some coming through, but not near the volume we used to have,” Darnall said. “I think the COVID epidemic definitely made an impact on what people wanted to do and who they wanted to be around. That’s been a concern for sure.”

Darnall said it's been especially hard to fill the jobs that require physical labor.

Greg Bacon
Greg Bacon

Other employers offer different reasons for the worker shortage. Greg Bacon is general manager of the Kongskilde Industries plant in Normal, where they make specialty equipment for plastic, paper and packaging industries.

Bacon said the company wants to expand, but hiring has been tough, especially when Rivian has been on a hiring spree. Bacon said there are only so many skilled workers to go around.

“That’s been a trend for a while now, but the intensity of that has just raised in the last few months to where I think we are going to see pay level coming up quite a bit in order to accommodate that and to attract more people into the trades," he said.

Bacon said the company has increased pay 30% to fill its open positions.

Staffing agencies

Some employers looking for hired help have turned to staffing agencies.

Meaghan Lucas is the Bloomington branch manager at Manpower. She said there are all kinds of jobs in demand — in restaurants, manufacturers and warehouses. Clerical jobs also are easy to find, she said.

Lucas said her office has nearly three times as many clients on jobs as it did a year ago, but agreed it's still a struggle for some employers.

Lucas blames expanded unemployment benefits as the main reason workers are hard to find. But she said a lack of childcare and COVID concerns also have kept from some returning to work.

Lucas said Manpower recruiters advise not to sit out too long, even if it's to your short-term advantage.

“In September, when the benefits of unemployment (expire), they are not going to be making as much money on unemployment as they would in an actual career path and just showing how a career would suit them in their family situation better than wanting to continue staying on the couch,” Lucas said.

Higher pay

Some employers have responded to the tight hiring market by offering better pay. Ashley HomeStore has boosted pay for office staff to between $12 and $15 per hour, said COO Ellen Hook.

Hook added the company also pledges $1,500 bonuses for hiring referrals and sales associates get commission for written sales. Hook said that way, sales reps get their money much faster, especially now since most furniture deliveries take three to four months.

“It’s more motivating when you’ve made a sale and you know you are going to get paid right away instead of waiting due to supply chain issues, several months sometimes for that commission check,” Hook said.

Other employers say raising pay is not that easy. Penny Darnall at Cintas said the company increased pay months before the pandemic started. She said it's time to raise it again.

“That is something we are definitely looking into. It’s something we would like. We are working with corporate on that now,” Darnall said.

Trevor Brothers, HR manager at Bridgestone, said wage negotiations at the tire plant will have to wait until next year when the current labor agreement expires.

“It’s not as flexible or as easy to just jump into something like that compared to a facility that does not have a union contract,” said Brothers, adding Bridgestone has offered other incentives, including retention and referral bonuses. The tire maker also has cast a wider net through digital and radio advertising to find job candidates.

Andy Shirk at Beer Nuts said the company has increased wages 60% for its lowest paying positions. Beer Nuts is moving some of its distribution to Bloomington from a plant in Michigan.

Shirk said it's a competitive hiring market, but that's OK. He said that will force employers to make their jobs more attractive.

“As a community we are seeing the bar being raised for employers to create better places for people to work. I think that’s a good thing on the whole,” Shirk said.

Employers may have to keep offering more perks to find the workers they need as long as they remain this bullish on an economic recovery.

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