Staffing Expert: Worker Shortage Still a ‘Top Issue’ for Companies

Mark Conrad can probably relate to Michael Corleone.

Conrad, the owner of a Houston-based franchise of staffing provider Express Employment Professionals, was making the transition out of the business, with a hand-picked successor in mind in early 2020.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his successor took a leave due to COVID burnout and there was Conrad, evoking the fictional Godfather: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

“I was in the process of backing off from the business, I had a general manager who was in play, but due to burnout I lost her,” Conrad explained. “She was also part of my succession plan.

“To be fair, the challenges were overwhelming issues that she had,” he added. “I think COVID-19 turned out to be a tipping point … she decided to leave and re-direct her career focus in a totally different direction. That brought me back into the day-to-day business, which I struggled with.”

As it was for many businesses around the country, the beginning of the pandemic was especially hard on Conrad’s business, a franchise of a parent company with more than 500,000 employees across 850 locations in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Revenue in the second quarter of 2020 dropped by 64%, according to Conrad, and the company fell by about 40% for the year, “one of our worst, most-challenging years.” But Express did what everyone else did: They pivoted – “I got tired of pivoting,” Conrad said, smiling – and rebounded.

They rebounded so well that 2021 was a record year, and 2022 topped that mark by 40%, Conrad said.

“This was definitely a deep scar … Some of them are scratches, but this was a deep one,” the owner said. “It’s something I don’t want to go through again, so hopefully it’s over.

“I will say we’re better off because we did go through it,” he added. “We’ve rebuilt, we were fortunate that we had another project that came across … that project catapulted us, we got the energy back.”

Conrad sat down to talk about staffing and other business issues during the most recent episode of “CEO Thought Leadership Series on LinkedIn Live,” the discussion series hosted by the National Association of Business Resources.

Produced in conjunction with the Best and Brightest Companies to Work for and Corp! Magazine, the series is hosted by NABR CEO Jennifer Kluge and features business leaders from around the country.

Jennifer Kluge: What is happening out there in terms of talent? Some (companies) are letting people go in masses, and some are hiring like crazy and can’t find enough talent. What’s going on?

Mark Conrad: The top issue for companies is still the worker shortage. We still have a workforce shortage. Last count I heard was there are two job openings for every available worker.

Depending on the industry you’re in, the current demand for what’s being provided, and that worker shortage or talent gap … There’s been a lot of shifts that have happened with all the COVID, and that’s been a bit of a tipping point.

Kluge: Which industries do you see hiring and which industries are not hiring right now?

Conrad: There’s still a shortage in the durable goods manufacturing, wholesale and trade and retail, education, health services still have labor shortages. These industries have more unfilled openings than unemployed workers with the experience.

Highest job openings for labor shortage are transportation industry, health care, social services, the food industry or leisure/hospitality. Conversely, I think construction and mining industries, there’s a labor shortage, but on the flip side we’ve seen drops in financial and insurance jobs.

I think jobs in finance and insurance grew rapidly during the pandemic, but they’ve fallen somewhere around 40% from the rest of the labor market.

Kluge: Uncertainty … seems to have been the theme the last two or three years.

Conrad: That’s probably the biggest word I hear is frustration. A large majority of CEOs are planning for a downturn, in some cases reducing head counts, particularly around marketing and advertising.

But for many the downturn hasn’t arrived yet. There’s still a shortage.

Kluge: There’s a big difference between what job seekers want and need and what employers want and need. It’s been cloned ‘the great divide.’ Are you seeing that?

Conrad: I would say in one word it’s frustration, is probably the easiest way to explain it. We all experienced COVID-19, which transformed the workplace and the job search altogether. Then we had the great resignation, where millions of employees resigned their position to find something better.

Now when you think the job market couldn’t get any crazier, we have this ‘great divide,’ which is probably one of the biggest concerns of all. If you’re a business owner, you’re frustrated looking to fill one or more positions, you get applications and bodies, but you’re struggling to find the right fit for the need and the team.

On the other hand, if you’re a job seeker, you’re also frustrated. If you’re searching for a new job … they may be looking for a more suitable place to work. Maybe you want to work 100% remote, or at least have an  option to work a few days from home, perhaps you’re wanting an entirely different career opportunity.

It’s almost like two different roads that people are on because we see a lot of people who are looking for work who say they can’t find the work.

Kluge: What are you seeing as best practices related to recruitment and retention, as it relates to employers? What are people doing out there that is working?

Conrad: There’s recruitment and retention, it’s a bit of the chicken and the egg. Focus on recruitment and retention strategies that actually work, to start with.

I encourage the clients we work with to flip that and focus on retention, and then the recruitment. If you can retain the employees you’ve got, that reduces the work you’re going to have to do to recruit new ones.

Turnover is expensive, something like $57,000 in cost to rehire and in lost productivity. It starts with making sure you find the right people … that’s a key component.

Kluge: If you had a young person who wanted to be an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them?

Conrad: If I was to look at myself, first off I’d tell them, ‘don’t do it,’ (laughing). Expect and realize what you’re getting into. Plan that your success is going to be half of what you think it is, and the cost is going to be double.

Self-reflection – really knowing who you are – is a key component, and I think sometimes it takes awhile before that happens. Be humble, be hungry and be smart, and hire people who are humble, hungry and smart.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, don’t be afraid to allow your people to make mistakes, and then learn from them. Engage with other people who can and want to help. The only difference between me and some 20-year-old is that I’ve made a lot more mistakes. Don’t give up.

Kluge: What were your moments of success?

Conrad: Defining my reality, self-assessment, really knowing what you’re good at, what you like to do and then accepting what you’re not good at and don’t like to do. Then develop a focus to where you spend more time doing what you’re good at, then find people who are good at what you don’t like to do.