ST. LOUIS — Unemployment rates in St. Louis and Missouri have continued to tumble over the past two years, and are now close to pre-pandemic levels, exacerbating employers’ struggles to find workers.
Rates have ticked down by a tenth of a point almost every month for the past year in St. Louis and across the state, landing in April at 3.6% and 3.4%, respectively, according to the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s just a few tenths of a percentage point shy of February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.
But it leaves area employers strapped by the tight labor market.
“It has not gotten at all better,” said Tim Wiggins, co-owner of On Point Hospitality, a group that owns local restaurants Retreat Gastropub, Yellowbelly and the Lazy Tiger. “It was never easy … but it is probably four to five times harder now.”
More than two years after coronavirus shutdowns drove job losses unlike those ever seen in the nation’s history, Missouri and the region continue to adjust. The good news: Unemployment rates, aided by self-employment figures, are still falling. The bad: Businesses statewide — from restaurants and bars to contractors and nursing homes — reported about 30,000 fewer employees last month than in February 2020.
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Some employers and employment agencies here said that they are now scaling up recruitment, raising pay and spending more time than ever searching for experienced candidates.
Larry Weinberg, president at Accounting Career Consultants in St. Louis County, said it feels like demand from employers is higher than it was pre-pandemic. The employment agency was working to fill about 120 jobs at a time before the pandemic. During the pandemic, the number dipped as low as 60. Now, it’s about 190, he said.
“We are experiencing the same shortage of candidates that everyone is,” he said. “We get a good candidate, and there are five to seven jobs to talk to them about.”
Salary inflation has hit pretty much all professions, Weinberg said. The “true” minimum wage is now between $15 and $20, he said.
“I think companies need to make sure they look for ways to offer flexibility, or maybe improve their benefits,” Weinberg said.
Overland-based Alberici Constructors has added recruiting staff, grown its internship programs and started recruiting from more colleges, said executive vice president Lance Cage. It’s been sending people to high school career fairs, to try and get kids interested in trades.
The pandemic slowed down construction projects in sectors like hospitality and commercial offices, but projects in other sectors increased substantially. The federal stimulus money grew consumer demand, which meant more projects with direct-to-consumer businesses, like pet food manufacturers. And the federal infrastructure bill signed late last year has boosted civil projects, like dams.
“Everybody in the construction industry, by and large, has needed more people,” Cage said. “It’s very competitive.”
The Cottages of Lake St. Louis, a long-term care community, has raised pay significantly, said CEO Al Beamer. The community has still struggled with recruitment, but it’s fared better than some in the industry: Unlike most nursing homes and hospitals, the Cottages have not had to bring in any short-term workers through staffing agencies.
Beamer said that’s partly due to the Cottages’ staff-to-resident ratios. In the past, he said, some employees have left to work for other companies, and returned after realizing that the staff-to-patient ratios were lower in other facilities.
Wiggins, the restaurant owner, said he’s trying to give his employees more flexibility. Kitchens are open fewer hours on weekdays, so staff can come in later and go home earlier.
But it’s difficult, fast-paced work that requires skill and late hours. Between Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly, the group could stand to hire four to six more employees, Wiggins said.
Still, Wiggins said he doesn’t want the industry to entirely return to normal. Pay is higher, schedules are better, and employers are generally valuing their employees more, he said.
“I’m not sure what the future looks like,” Wiggins said. “I don’t think that one day the faucet is turned back on, and there’s just labor again.”
But there is hope on the horizon:
Chuck Gascon, a senior economist at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, noted that 30,000 workers is just 1% of the state’s 3-million-person workforce, and about the same number of jobs that Missouri added annually between 2010 and 2020.
That means the state could fully recover in as little as a year.