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Amid seasonal shopping surge, Bloomington-Normal businesses say jobs remain hard to fill

help wanted sign
Charles Krupa

The current job market continues to be a source of woe — and not workers — for area businesses.

Traditionally, the holidays can make or break many businesses. It's the time of year when customers flood stores or websites, and that sales bump is what often turns money losses for a year into a profit.

This year, though, the ongoing worker shortage may be limiting the ability of businesses to meet peak customer demand.

The most current estimates from the federal U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics show about a 3.8% unemployment rate in Bloomington-Normal as of October.

That's "consistent with businesses having a hard time finding people," said Marc Poirier, the president and CEO of Abbey Placements, the only locally owned and operated employment agency in the Twin Cities.

"Lower unemployment means that there's not as many job seekers available," he said. "We're seeing really historic, low numbers of workers available especially for what we call semi-skilled or sometimes unskilled positions."

Abbey Placements tends to fill clerical or light industrial jobs in manufacturing. Of those, the latter has been especially difficult to fill lately in Bloomington-Normal, Poirier said.

"We've had a lot of demand with new companies coming to town and ... a need to ramp up production for existing companies as we are emerging out of the pandemic," he said. "You're not going back to the workforce you had before the pandemic — you actually have to increase it."

Those with their finger on the pulse of local business say that increase hasn't happened, despite large employers like State Farm and Rivian bringing thousands of jobs to the area in the past year.

"Employers are struggling across the board without regard to any one particular industry," said McLean County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Charlie Moore. "A lot of times, you see it in retail and restaurants because those are very front-facing types of jobs, but manufacturing and service and any other kind of labor position... it's become a very real struggle for nearly every employer I've talked to over the past couple of months."

Moore touted a recent campaign launched by the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council as one potential solution.

The collaborative campaign between the EDC and other area business groups is called Commute BN. The goal is to entice out-of-towners to consider working in the metropolitan area, joining some 30,000 other commuters in the process.

Housing crunch

Poirier also pointed to another hindrance for potential workers: a shortage of housing options.

"That's really a long-term solution," he said. "The constraints because of some of the housing shortages that are going on ... may continue for a little while."

In the short-term, he said, it's possible the area could "unfortunately see a number of businesses close because they can't get the workforce they need."

That's kind of what happened to longtime business owner Peggy Parker, when she tried to expand her business in the past few years.

Since 1980, she's run Christmas Creations, a store at Eastland Mall that she describes as highly successful despite it's niche content and the fact that it's only open two months out of the year.

"I used to do a store in Champaign and I stopped that about two years ago because we struggled to get employees," she said.

For the Bloomington store, Parker said she doesn't release formal applications or job-seeking notices, opting instead to just "put it out on Facebook or tell my friends ... and have people come to me."

When she tried to solicit workers via formal applications in Champaign, she said, she watched a growing worker shortage unfold over the years before deciding to close her doors. Looking back, she now attributes that shortage to the availability of credit and a changing educational ecosystem.

"It used to be that people would get a second job to pay for Christmas, but now that credit is so readily available, people aren't doing that anymore," she said. "I also used to hire a lot of college and high school kids and they're not working anymore.

"High school kids are involved in so many activities anymore that they're just not available for the hours I need. College students, their parents are wanting them to focus on their studies, so they're encouraging them not to work. And we've lost out in the workforce because of those reasons."

All of that said, Parker added she still hasn't had a hard time finding the six workers she needs for her Bloomington store each year.

"A lot of it is that people know it's going to be a fun environment and they know I'm flexible with hours," she said. "I'll do everything I can to make it work for them. The fact that we're a little more flexible and we do everything to keep our employees happy makes it easier for people to work here."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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