Cullman’s workforce: advantages of tight labor market


Dale Greer / Tribune file photo

CULLMAN – When lots of people are working and unemployment rates drop way down, that’s known as a tight labor market, and right now it is seriously tight!  The current US unemployment rate of 4.1 percent (steady since Oct. 2017) represents a 17-year low, meaning that more people are working today than at any point during the average high school student’s lifetime.  Alabama’s rate beats that, down to a record low of 3.5 percent.

Cullman Economic Development Agency Director Dale Greer observed, “The governor is bragging that we’ve got over two million people working, like 2,090,000 or something, only the second time in history we’ve reached that number.”

If you break that statewide number down into regions, things get even better in our part of the state.  

Greer continued, “Typically, 25 to 35 percent of the new job growth and industrial development in the state occurs in the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) region, which is the 13 north Alabama counties out of the 67.  So, a lot of the growth is up here. The north Alabama region has an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, even lower than the state. So it’s just been very, very successful, got a lot of growth, got a lot of development, creating a lot of jobs.  The (Alabama) Department of Commerce, everybody’s touting all the jobs we’ve created. And automotive growth is doing some, and Airbus, and Boeing, and it is just really great economic development times.”

You can even take that focus down to Cullman County, and find almost unbelievable results.  The county’s current unemployment rate sits at an astounding low of 2.8 percent.

When those numbers get that low, it’s good news for the economy: people are making money and spending money, businesses make money and contribute more to the local community through taxes.  Contributions by individuals and businesses to charities go up while the number of people in need of charity goes down.

There is a challenge, though, and it falls to the businesses and industries.  With more people working, the labor market has fewer people available to hire, especially for lower end jobs.  Employers have to think bigger.

“I’ll tell you what happens when you get fewer people and it’s harder for the companies to find the right people they want,” said Greer, “then I think that becomes more competitive, and it is more an employee market than an employer market.”

A Cullman area fast food restaurant had small signs in its windows a few months ago advertising $8 an hour to start.  More recently, a banner on its lawn offered $9. Across the country, employers are getting creative. Home Depot streamlined its application process, while Lowe’s has begun offering funding to help employees train for credentials in skilled trades.  The Wal-Mart corporation has announced across-the-board raises and/or bonuses. Hiring of disabled workers is on the rise, and even applicants with criminal records are finding it easier to get their feet in the door. And bosses seem to be making more time to develop their employees, giving them more opportunities for advancement and raises, to keep them on the payroll.

Greer related, “When I was a kid, you had a lot of people who were unemployed, so if you didn’t want to work, they had somebody else to bring into your place pretty quick, and they didn’t have to worry about you as much.  Well, as your market gets tight, they know that if they’re unhappy with you and want to run you off, there’s not tons of people out there, standing in the doorway to take your job. So I think they spend a little more time and energy making you a better employee, as far as skills and jobs, and things that let you move up in the system.  

“If I go in there and what I do for a living is load these boxes, and I go in there and I go, ‘I need more money,’ well, you know if you want more money, this job doesn’t pay more money.  You’ve got to learn a little more, do a little more, move into this section, have a little more responsibility. And I think those are the things that you do to do some things, which isn’t particular programs.  But I just think you end up with, as they make more money and do those things (with) more responsibility and more skills, I think they just are able to better themselves, their families. And I think that is just a positive, overall.”

Alabama’s current unemployment rate, 3.5 percent in December 2017 (this is a preliminary figure and is subject to revision), is the lowest on record. Cullman County’s December 2017 rate, 2.8 percent, is the second-lowest in the state for December, down markedly from December 2016’s rate of 4.9 percent.

January’s unemployment rates are scheduled to be released on March 12.

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