By Nicole Allshouse

Ky Gregory is an Alabama business owner. For the past 12 years, he has run Southern Precision Staffing. Essentially, Gregory helps other business owners find talented workers. But he never dreamed he would be struggling to find men and women who wanted to work. 

"Let's put this into perspective,” Gregory said. “Pre-pandemic, if we were hiring for 10 spots, we would get 50 applications. Basically, a 5:1 ratio. Post-pandemic, we are getting zero applications. Zero. Think about that."

It’s not just Southern Precision Staffing fighting the lack of workers. It’s a national problem, spanning from the east coast to the west coast. 

"We post on social media, letting people know we are looking for hire,” Gregory said. “We advertise on the radio, on television. We have run spots on Craigslist and LinkedIn. If you can think of a place to advertise, we have tried it. Nothing works like it used to, and the only people calling looking for work are the people who have worked with us prior. We don't have any new names in the can, so to speak." 

Gregory said that referring to this particular time as “frustrating” would be an understatement. 

"I have had plenty of sleepless nights worrying about this,” Gregory said. “I love my job because I can help people. Usually, I can help business owners by providing them with employees. And in turn, I can help the guy or gal out there, looking for a good steady paycheck to support their families. But right now, it's brutal." 

Gregory said if 50 people would apply today, he could place them with jobs immediately, and the jobs pay between $25 and $35 per hour. 

"It's interesting because usually this time of year, around the holidays, is when we have the most applications because people want to buy Christmas presents for their children,” said Gregory. “Not this year.”

Driving around Alabama, you will see the same story: Help wanted signs on beauty parlors, restaurants, flower shops, and some places, like McDonald's, offering signing bonuses. And then of course, there is a trickle-down effect. With staff shortages, businesses are having to reduce hours of operation. In some cases, the general public has to resort to online shopping because even when they want to buy locally, businesses aren't open when the customer needs something.  

The phenomenon we are seeing with lack of workers is being called “The Great Resignation.” Even some people who have steady jobs are quitting. #GreatResignation has thousands of tags on social media. Although the stories come from different cities and the businesses offer various services, they all have the same ending - employers are now seeing mass exits. 

According to the Labor Department, a record-high 4.4 million people, or 3% of workers, quit their jobs in September 2021. Many people point to the government and the Biden administration for cutting big checks for people sitting at home, opposed to getting a job. Others blame the virus itself for causing such changes to be necessary. Some employers are requiring employees to get vaccinated leading to some workers resigning their positions, choosing their personal freedom over a paycheck.

1819 News reached out to a leadership development coach to discuss what's going on across the country for small and big businesses. Marissa Lee is the founder and CEO of SOW EVOLVE, LLC. She specializes in employee experience and engagement, helping mid-managers leverage leadership to retain employees.

"The emphasis on a retention strategy has increased dramatically over the past year and a half," Lee said. "Money is not enough. It's the price of entry when it comes to engagement and retention levels. And guess what? Since COVID, money is lower on the list of priorities for some employees. We are seeing a greater need for flexible work hours, a better work/life balance, the option to work from home, and more of a human connection with their employers."

Lee said it comes down to mental health wellness needs.

"Understanding the employee psyche, what they want and need, how it compares pre-pandemic and post-pandemic is critical," Lee continued. "Throwing your employees a pizza party and giving them a gift card at Christmas won't work anymore! If you are a boss, you have to understand what's motivating your employees to leave or stay, especially over these past 20-plus months."

Lee said clarity is critical, and employers can ask themselves the following questions:

- How did you support your employees prior to 2020?

- How did you support your employees during 2020? Pandemic safety, Pandemic life shifts, Racial unrest, etc.?

- Are your employee benefits aligned with your employee/societal needs? For example, do you have maternity leave and paternity leave? Do you offer help for adoption or infertility treatments?

- How are you ensuring gender and racial pay equity?

"You have to understand your engagement story to influence retention and predict where you're going," said Lee.

Engagement and retention are not as cut and dry, according to Lee. She said the pandemic helped to shine a light on the shifts. Now it's about the things that don't necessarily show up in a benefits package. Things like purpose and fulfillment play a more prominent role in potential employees' evaluation of organizations. Unspoken gestures that show an employer cares, matter to the modern-day employee, Lee said.

Employees across the country had concerns pre-pandemic, but the pandemic acted as a catalyst to help them take that leap and find more emotionally fulfilling jobs, Lee believes. She thinks that employees want to feel valued and heard, not just paid.

And when it comes to "big business," Lee said, employees now want to feel like they are sharing in the company's overall success.

"Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, is an excellent example of this," Lee said. "She recently gave her employees two first-class tickets to anywhere in the world and 10 grand each. That indeed says sharing. Every company isn't going to share the organization's success in this way, but it is an opportunity to look at how your compensation guidelines align with your strategy and how you reward your people."

Lee said employers also have to shift their views on workers and comprehensively look at work life. She shared three things to keep in mind:

The key to navigating through these times is strong leadership, Lee said.

"Employees usually leave managers and cultures," Lee said. "If the culture is not right, the number on the paycheck will not matter."

For those facing challenges, bringing in a third party could help because Lee said psychological safety gives employees a safe space to speak without fear of retaliation.

"If people quit and won't tell you why they are leaving, then that's a sign they don't care, don't feel safe to share, and more importantly that you need someone to help you get better insight on the employee experience," said Lee. "Partnering with someone externally can help you dig deeper and get to the root cause of your employee engagement and retention challenges. The goal is to continue to get better, and your ability to acknowledge that you need assistance demonstrates vulnerability and your self-awareness as a leader."

Lee wrote the book "Why I Broke Up With My Company" to further rethink the dynamics between managers and employees and drive better employee experiences.

Lastly, Lee shared, "I want employers to stop trying to get back to normal, but instead try to continue to evolve. If you can accept and think about new ways of working and implement culture changes within your organization, you will be better positioned to soar."

As far as Alabamians, if you are looking for steady work and want to apply with Southern Precision Staffing, Gregory said he will be happy to help you find employment in the Birmingham Metro area.