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The getting is good in the job market, for now

Employers are raising base pay and offering other benefits to compete for workers, but the Delta variant looms as a threat.

A waitress delivers the drinks at Old Crow Smokehouse, 3506 N. Clark St., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.
A waitress delivers the drinks at Old Crow Smokehouse on Friday. The restaurant’s owner, Sam Sanchez, is still trying to fill some openings, despite raising his starting pay. The labor shortage has forced him to cut restaurant hours and close entirely on some days.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

If you are out of work, there’s one consolation: There could be worse times to look for a job.

Labor Day 2021 finds labor-friendly conditions. Companies are reporting difficulty filling open positions, whether the jobs are for cook, software engineer or financial analyst. Many have raised base pay, offered bonuses and inducements such as flexible schedules to get people to sign on.

There’s a catch, though. It’s the Delta variant of COVID-19, which has canceled events and threatened the travel and hospitality industries anew. Its effect is showing up in federal reports covering the job market, although executives remain upbeat about the acceptance of vaccines and the economy’s continued recovery during the pandemic.

“I have never seen a better job market in my 25 years in business than I’ve seen today,” said Tom Gimbel, CEO of Chicago-based LaSalle Network, a staffing agency for white-collar jobs. He cited demand in areas such as information technology, sales and marketing and human resources, and a 35% increase in annual revenue for his firm.

Gimbel speculated that if you stripped out airlines, hotel and restaurant jobs, “I think you’d have the lowest unemployment on record.”

The sectors he mentioned are on the front lines of the Delta threat and some of its businesses have curtailed hiring or closed. Others still need people.

Sam Sanchez, whose restaurants include Moe’s Cantina and Tree House Chicago in River North and Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, said his hiring needs range from management roles to the back of the house. The labor shortage has forced him to cut restaurant hours and close entirely on some days.

“Many workers we had have gone elsewhere, to other industries,” he said. Sanchez said he’s raised starting hourly wages, which were about $18, into the low $20s.

“We’re getting a different type of employee now. You have to train them,” he said. But Sanchez said restaurant work can be a terrific prospect for the right person. “You can come in as a dishwasher and end up owning the restaurant,” he said.

Sam Sanchez, the owner of the Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, at the restaurant’s rooftop bar on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.
Sam Sanchez, the owner of the Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, at the restaurant’s rooftop bar on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Illinois Restaurant Association has joined with the industry’s national lobbying group to ask Congress to create a class of immigrant worker visas to help it with the labor shortage.

The U.S. Labor Department said Friday the nation’s unemployment rate in August fell to 5.2% from 5.4% in July. But it also said only 235,000 jobs were created, a disappointing figure to economists geared up for more growth after two prior months saw the country gain nearly 2 million jobs.

“The August job gains were somewhat weaker than expected; although it is not clear that it should be viewed as a seriously negative report,” said Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Business categories that shed jobs or showed little change in August included retail trade, leisure and hospitality and construction.

The Illinois jobless rate, to be updated in mid-September, stood at 7.1% for July.

Other signs point to continued economic strength. The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index, a popular tipoff for business’ buying habits, has been strongly bullish but with a caveat. “Firms say the available supply of raw materials and workers isn’t sufficient to keep up with new orders,” said the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago, which conducts the monthly survey.

Job postings are at high levels and some companies have publicized their search for workers. Amazon has said it needs 6,000 people to staff its new warehouses in Matteson and Markham, part of the retailer’s national hiring frenzy of 40,000 jobs. Fidelity Investments, capitalizing on greater interest in trading stocks, is adding 9,000 people.

Two waitresses (left) go over orders as a bartender mixes drinks at the Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.
Two waitresses (left) go over orders as a bartender mixes drinks at the Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Few companies can match those hiring ambitions, but they’re still in expansion mode. AT&T, for example, has said it is hiring 300 sales staff in the Midwest, including 120 in the Chicago area, by the end of the year. Spokesman Phil Hayes said the offer includes a $1,000 signing bonus and generous benefits that include tuition reimbursement. “As more people are starting to look for work, we are finding a tremendous amount of qualified candidates out there,” Hayes said.

CVS Health, citing an increase in its minimum wage nationwide, is filling 200 open positions in the Chicago region. With corporate office expansions, CoinFlip, Flock Freight and Kimberly-Clark have announced hiring plans locally.

Competition for talent could abate in the weeks ahead. Some experts believe more workers will enter the job market. Factors they cite include the resumption of in-class schooling and the end, which happens Monday, of a $300-a-week federal addition to state jobless benefits. The cutoff includes Illinois, but research in states that ended the federal bonus weeks ago showed it had little effect on the labor supply.

For the time being, companies are competing for new hires. The insurance and consulting firm Gallagher surveyed firms in a wide range of fields and found 72% have raised salaries for the sake of recruitment or retention.

Becky Frankiewicz, president of the staffing firm ManpowerGroup, in July wrote that employers must respond not only with money but with workplace flexibility. “It isn’t just office workers who’ve gotten used to working at home,” she said in a company posting. “Many contact center roles have gone virtual; what’s more, many of these roles have been filled with candidates coming from the service and hospitality industry. Many of those workers have thrived in their new roles and may likely think twice before going back to previous lifestyles of working nights or weekends.”

How long can the labor-friendly market go on? The August jobs report was a caution, but it may have inspired an “I told you so” from the economic team at Chicago’s Northern Trust. In mid-August, the researchers posted an economic outlook for growth but with “bumps on the journey. Supply chain disruptions are weighing on output, while the Delta variant of COVID-19 is causing some reopening plans to change. At this time, a return to lockdowns seems highly unlikely, but the path to a full recovery will be choppy.”

“Act now” is a tagline in commercials but for today’s job seekers, it’s good advice.