It’s Time To Get Back To Work. According to data from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, the River Valley’s regional labor force numbers are just shy of 120,000 workers. For clarification, our region encompasses Sebastian, Crawford, Sequoyah and Le Flore Counties. Our most recent data tells us that we have an unemployment rate of around 8%, or 9,600 people. This is triple the number unemployed as recently as January of this year, when there were an estimated 3,600 persons unemployed, when we were able to boast an unemployment rate of near historic lows at 3.1%. But pride comes before the fall.
The pandemic came out of left field and found us unprepared. Our workers were laid off, furloughed or terminated, in part because of the economic hit we took and in part for safety measures. Employers haven’t dealt with a pandemic before and there was no playbook. Many companies needed time to create a custom-fit strategy for heightened safety protocols prompted by COVID-19. By and large, our area employers have stepped up big. They took the time to invest in workplace safety through implementing new standards such as daily health assessments, encouraging employees to wear face coverings when appropriate, adhering to physical (social) distancing standards, improved ventilation systems and, of course, having a copious amount of Lysol and and hand sanitizer on ready-access for all employees, customers and vendors at every turn, station and high traffic area.
Our unemployment spiked in April at an astounding 11%. In a mere six months, we went from enjoying a near-historic, low unemployment rate to experiencing a near-historic, high unemployment rate. The labor market has been volatile, to say the least. The 8% unemployment rate indicates that the worst of the employment crisis is behind us. This does not mean that the virus has subsided. We know reported cases are spiking across the nation. What it does indicate is that employers have implemented safety protocols to protect their workers and have begun to rehire. The last three months was a learning process for everyone, but Fort Smith has been true to its legacy of being a resilient community and we should be proud of our progress through this challenge.
Now that employers have begun to figure out how to recall workers safely with the addition of new policies, procedures and protocols in place, we need to focus on getting our community back to work. We need to be very careful not to incentivize otherwise able workers not to return to the workforce when they have the opportunity. There are multiple social ills that stem from the consequences of long-term unemployment that go much deeper than just a lack of income or economic suffering. For a close-to-home example, we all recall Whirlpool and the devastating affects that plant closure had on this community. I would argue that the huge spike in opiate abuse and dependence in tandem with the growing foster care crisis can largely be traced back to that occurrence. We’ve done so much to combat those consequences in our community, we should be motivated to avoid repeating that course at all costs. But these are different crises, with different causes and hopefully different results.
Data indicates employers are beginning to hire again. My employer, TRAC Staffing, has an abundance of job openings for our clients in Fort Smith, Sallisaw and Poteau. This is important because data available from the American Staffing Association strongly suggests labor trends occurring in staffing companies is often indicative of larger workforce trends. Our clients have all implemented safety protocols as their operations demanded and now they’re ready to hire. I’ve heard from other employers in the area that are echoing this same sentiment — it’s time to get back to work. The idea of getting back to work has been conflated, in some areas, with irresponsible behavior. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve covered, most employers have been very responsive to the challenges presented by this pandemic and the first round of assistance in the CARES act was instrumental in allowing them the time to plan and implement a pathway forward. While it was instrumental in helping us achieve safer working conditions, it was not intended to become a replacement for work. It was instead intended to be a temporary financial placeholder for the affected workforce while allowing employers the space and resources to implement new protocols for protecting worker safety. Data indicates that’s exactly what we did.
To summarize, employers are hiring. A word to the wise: If you are out of work and want to stand out to employers, you won’t want to wait for the CARES act funding to end to find a job. You will be competing with 9,600 other individuals then. Make no mistake, there were jobs that were eliminated due to this pandemic. There were businesses that closed. There are jobs that will not be coming back to our area. Think of it like musical chairs. There’s just as many people as when this game started, there are just less chairs now — or jobs. Not everyone will have a job to go back to. In the end, there will be more job seekers than available jobs. So the wisdom I would like to extend to any job seeker is this,
“the early bid gets the work.”
Apply for jobs here: TRAC Staffing Job Openings