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The challenge of filling often vacant positions

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In this post-recession economy, human resource professionals and staffing firms say that they still struggle to fill some key positions but that the job candidate pool has widened significantly in recent months.

“The labor market has changed to the point where it is harder to find candidates willing to accept the pay rate being offered, especially if they have experience,” said Kenneth Dawson, co-owner of PrideStaff Lehigh Valley. “You have to raise the pay rate or bring in inexperienced people and put them through a training program.”

Dawson, whose firm handles a lot of light industrial, machinery and production staffing, said the recession was a lackluster time for many staffing firms, but he has received hundreds of resumes since January when unemployment dried up for many people.

Even with the job candidate surge, finding people for skilled labor jobs is still tricky, he said, adding that a subset of people will go to work the first day and not show up the next.

“What is the secret sauce? Well, I don’t know, but it is important to know how to attract the workers,” said Dawson, noting there are still many people who do not like using a computer. “It depends on the demographics of the position you want to fill.”

Those skilled in machinery work may be easier to find with fliers and tear-offs instead of online search engines such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.

At Nestle Purina Petcare Co. in South Whitehall Township, Gwen Herzog, human resource manager, said a lot of applications are done online. In addition, candidates often are found at job fairs, job referrals from other employees and recruitment of college graduates.

“Skilled maintenance mechanics are the hardest jobs to fill, and it is a slower process,” Herzog said. “The person must have experience, and there are specific requirements we are looking for.”

The South Whitehall Township location, which makes pet food brands such as Alpo, Friskies and ProPlan, has 400 workers, and jobs are available.

“We saw people really starting to apply for jobs this spring, especially when places like Walgreens had all those layoffs,” Herzog said.

Nazareth Pallet in Northampton is one company that allows people to apply on-site, but it sees a fair share of candidates from online postings and job fairs. The company plans to be at a job fair this Tuesday at Steelstacks in Bethlehem.

Spokeswoman Paula Beck said that finding commercial drivers is not easy for the pallet maker in this competitive market. While Nazareth Pallet is willing to train anyone with a good work ethic for jobs in production or warehousing, transportation workers must to have at least two years of experience to get the position.

“Our organization always needs to be fully staffed because it is imperative that our clients get their orders on time,” Beck said. “Many employees have been trained in more than one job so that each production area will always have coverage.”

At Express Employment Professionals, owner Tom Rooney said companies call him to fill “the peaks and valleys.”

He said Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, has many small companies hesitant to have a staff of more than 50 employees and accept the cost involved with health care benefits. So, instead, they use his staffing firm.

“Since the recession, people want a multifaceted employee. One firm wanted a junior accountant who knew QuickBooks, but that is tough to find,” Rooney said. “For one thing, colleges do not make people in their accounting program learn QuickBooks.”

Diane Erman, human resources manager at Fluortek in Easton, said the company’s biggest challenge is finding skilled workers for manufacturing, and it is going on everywhere. She noted a recent report that cited about 600,000 manufacturing jobs are available in the U.S.

In Wyomissing, Jenna Detweiler is branch manager of Berks and Beyond, a staffing agency that primarily handles staffing for light industrial, technical and skilled labor jobs. She said the firm has a large database of clients acquired in the last 13 years.

Detweiler said the company does “passive searching,” utilizing social media sites such as Facebook to quickly fill positions. She said she believes the job market in Berks County is good because it is a blue collar area with many distribution centers, warehouses and manufacturing jobs.

“You have to do some recruiting, but people are just happy to have a job,” she said.

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