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North Carolina retailers likely to have trouble hiring holiday workers

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David Boraks
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WFAE
Help for the holidays might be hard to come by for many Charlotte-area retailers in 2021.

Just 7% of jobs added last month were retail positions. The president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants association says he's concerned about how stores around the Charlotte region will handle the holiday shopping season.

It's that time of year when retailers gear up for a glut of holiday shoppers, often taking on seasonal workers to help with the increased demand. But will they be able to find those workers this year?

Figures from the U.S. Labor Department show the economy added 531,000 jobs last month, but only a small sliver — about 7% — were retail jobs. Andy Ellen is president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. He's concerned about how retailers will handle the holidays, and he joins us now as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

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North Carolina Retail Merchants Association
Andy Ellen

Andy Ellen: Thank you very much for having me, Marshall. Greatly appreciate it.

Terry: Why has retail not seen the increase in jobs that other industries like leisure and hospitality and manufacturing have?

Ellen: Well, I think you still have a slowdown of recruiting employees back into hospitality and restaurants. But for the retail sector, the biggest issue has been just recruiting people back to where they may have been pre-COVID. I think there's some other factors there as well in that a lot of kids get their very first job at a retail store. And last year during COVID, we lost almost an entire class of kids whose parents did not want them to go to work because they thought they might get COVID, or they did not want them enforcing a mask mandate or things like that.

Those tend to be the kids that come back the following year back into the workforce and work a second year or a third year. Additionally, I think what you have going on is you have a lot of people that have the ability to work remotely that previously did not have that ability. So, businesses are drawing from people all over the country and they can pull those people to work remotely. And so that's pulling some people out of the local labor force that we might otherwise have access to.

Terry: How does the hiring for retail positions look here in North Carolina compared to the rest of the country? Are we faring better or worse when it comes to these jobs?

Ellen: I think we're faring a little bit better. The unemployment from the federal side has run out, and I think you have more people interested in getting back to work in this time period. But I think it's a struggle all over the United States, and it's a struggle through the entire supply chain, whether that be the trucking side to the distribution channel side at the distribution centers to get those items to the store, and then having people work actually physically in the stores. So it's across the whole spectrum (that) there's a shortage.

Terry: How are you advising your members to handle the holiday season?

Ellen: We're advising retailers to take different avenues than they may have in the past — to utilize better social media, to utilize better referrals that they may not have done in the past, to also recruit on college campuses, high schools as well, and then also use their Employment Security Commission system to recruit individuals that may not have thought of retail as either a job opportunity for the holidays or longer term, a job opportunity as a career path.

And so we're having to go out into the different channels, and that's what we're encouraging them to do — go to channels they may not have had to utilize in the past. Because in the past, retailers would say, "We're going to hire thousands of seasonal workers during the holidays," and people would see it as an opportunity to pick up some extra holiday spending money. This year, that's been a little bit harder just because there's so many job openings across the economy in so many different industries. We're all competing for the same workers at this point.

Terry: How has the labor shortage changed the employer-employee dynamic in retail? And what I mean is, do employees feel more empowered because they know employers are not as likely to, let's say, discipline them or fire them? Because, well, there is this labor shortage.

Ellen: Oh, I think they're very much more empowered at this point in time and because they know that they can go find a job wherever they want to find one if they don't feel that this employer is treating them fairly. Employees right now have a great deal more bargaining power than they previously may have had. And I think also looming over us is this vaccine mandate that goes into effect in January officially.

And I think that also could be a threat to not only employment in the retail sector but other employment. Because will those employees move from an employer with 100 employees that falls under that mandate ... to one that has less than 100? I think that's something that everybody has a very close watch on, depending on what happens in the courts with that rule.

Terry: What are you hearing from your members about that impending mandate?

Ellen: They're very concerned. I always say at the North Carolina General Assembly, when I do a lot of work there, that the worst effective date you can have is Jan. 1 because you have the holidays, you have a lot of people taking vacation at the end of the year, spending time with family. And trying to implement a very complex policy at that point in time is always hard. This is no different.

And in this year, again, we are already stretched very thin for labor. That has stretched the supply chain just in ways we never contemplated, and I think this could just exacerbate that even further. We're all for employees being vaccinated. We're just really worried at this point in time that employees will take that mandate and use it as a reason to move to a different employer or exit the job market altogether.

Terry: Well, looking past the holidays and the new year, what's the biggest concern you have for retailers overall as we do move into 2022?

Ellen: I think a couple of things. One, we've got to get the supply chain again back to where we were. I think for the smaller retailer, it's again finding employees that can help keep a small business open. Because if you have two employees or three employees and you're down two, that puts a really big stress on the current employees as well as the owner of that store.

But I think long term, we're looking at inflation. And we've had 6% inflation, which is the largest we've had in quite a bit of time. Gas prices, which also affect the economy and affect trucking costs and those sort of things and cargo ship container cost. So, I think we're looking at increased cost and then how do those get passed on to the consumer, unfortunately, and what that does long term to the retail environment and the retail economy.

Terry: Thank you so much for taking the time.

Ellen: Thank you very much, Marshall. Have a great day. Please call anytime.

Terry: Andy Ellen is the president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic.