We are coming off a record year of unemployment yet reports of a labor shortage remain widespread.

It’s a phenomenon that Sarah Fulton understands firsthand as Vice President of Operations at The Lee Group. Her take: what we really have is a downward trend in the labor force participation rate — a trend that can impact the economy if left unchecked.

“There’s stories out there about a labor shortage, but there’s not a shortage of unemployed people,” Fulton says. “There’s people out there who won’t apply for certain jobs. And some of those jobs are in the highest demand.”

The jobs out there fall primarily in two categories:

  • Low skill — these are jobs that rely on simple tasks and can be learned quickly.
  • Skilled trades — these are manufacturing jobs in fields that include welding, plumbing and construction

Postings for both kinds of jobs linger and are often dismissed by unemployed workers who don’t envision themselves making a future in either area.

But how about considering the present? Fulton asks.

You’re not signing on for life when you accept a new position, she stresses. Be open to a job even if it doesn’t fall into the category of your dreams. See where it leads.

“If you don’t have any options, why not take it?” she says.

Of course, certain skills or certifications might be necessary for a candidate who applies to a job in the skilled trades. Despite six-figure salaries in many of these fields, manufacturers are sorely in need of talent. Fulton points to our education system pushing the importance of a four-year college degree over technical or apprenticeship training that allows you to earn while you learn. Altering that mindset and making the skilled trades attractive to today’s millennials doesn’t happen overnight.

“I really don’t think there’s a magic wand,” Fulton says. “Employers can raise their pay rate and that might attract attention a little bit, but it’s not going to fix the problem. That requires changing the education system.

But many companies are willing to pay for candidates to enter a short-term training program or hire them as apprentices as long as the willingness and work ethic are there.

During the interview process, Fulton talks with candidates about their employment needs in a holistic manner, noting the shifts they are available to work to manage whatever else is going on in their household. When she floats an opening to a candidate, it meets those requirements even if it’s not always a dream scenario.

“Often I give candidates an opportunity to look at something they otherwise wouldn’t,” she says. “Ask yourself if you’re willing to look outside of the scope of what you think you want to do.”

Fulton wants candidates to understand that where they start doesn’t have to be where they end up. At a recent meeting with a major Virginia Beach manufacturing company, she was surrounded by supervisors and managers who started out as hourly employees.

“They worked their way up to supervisory levels,” she says.

Discovering what you want to do professionally in life is rarely a linear process. “People generally learn by trying something, figuring it out and making adjustments,” she says. “Why would you not look at your job search the same way?”

If vacancies continue to mount, the ramifications will be felt in every consumer’s pocketbook. A smaller labor pool makes it difficult for manufacturers to keep up with increased demand. That leads to delays in projects — new home construction, for example. If wages raise significantly to attract more workers, that cost is passed onto consumers as inflation.

Fulton urges candidates not to box themselves in and become fixated on only one type of opening. Diversify your search. See what you can learn. Try something new out.

She asks, “What do you have to lose?”

Want to explore open job positions? Go here.

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