At a fast-growing bike manufacturing outfit in Bristol Township, owner Jason Kraft said he can’t find people for full-time bicycle assembly jobs that pay between $15 and $22 per hour.
In desperation, Electric Bike Technologies rented a billboard along I-95 in Philadelphia that advertises available jobs during a time of high unemployment in the state.
Some 465,0000 Pennsylvanians, 7.1% of the labor force, are out of work, according to the state Department of Labor. Yet, Kraft’s inability to find workers comes as no surprise to the the National Federation of Independent Business Owners and Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
“Every person I speak to says that the hardest thing is finding and maintaining quality workers,” said Gene Barr, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania chamber. “You see 'Now Hiring' signs everywhere," Barr added.
With some restaurants closed and others struggling, unemployment is high in the hospitality industry. Yet, workers in that sector aren't moving into other positions where demand is high, said Gordon Denlinger, Pennsylvania director of the NFIB.
"There's a general reluctance of some workers in the hospitality industry to move into other jobs," Denlinger said. "People tend to gravitate to what they know."
Analysts point to these and other issues such as the lack of available and affordable child care for young parents, the continued closure of some public schools, fears of contracting the coronavirus, the lack of mass transit in the suburbs, and a reliance on unemployment assistance.
Long before the pandemic, some manufacturers were struggling to find applicants with mechanical skills. In 2014, Bucks County Community College launched an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in Bristol Township and at the behest of local manufacturers who couldn’t find people to fill jobs.
At Electronic Bike Technologies, business manager Robert Irving described efforts to advertise positions on traditional job websites. More than 1,200 applied for positions, he said. Of those, about four dozen met the necessary qualifications, Irving estimated. When called to the warehouse for interviews, they didn’t show up.
The jobs now advertised on a billboard don’t require extensive training and would be perfect for someone with previous experience in an auto body shop or garage, Irving said. “I need someone who can tell the difference between an allen wrench and a socket wrench,” he said.
Some might be attracted to a position where you never have to read an email or attend a slog of Zoom meetings. There's no desk work, here.
“There is zero PC work or emailing or meetings,” said Kraft. “These individuals build from bikes from 0% to 100% of the time, and when they do it well, they can take pride knowing that each bike or trike they built with their own two hands, ends up with the end user riding a bike or trike that improves their life.”
Begun in 2008, the company sells battery powered bicycles and tricycles. Electric Bike Technologies also sells kits and batteries for transforming traditional bikes into electric power bicycles and tricycles.
Sales increased by 200% amid the coronavirus pandemic as more Americans sought ways to get outside and get around without using mass transportation, said Kraft. The company currently has about 200 bicycles and tricycles on back order and needs more workers to speed delivery, he said.
Statewide, issues in hiring could send companies packing, said Denlinger. "Businesses go where there is a supply of labor to meet their needs. If they can't find it here, they may go overseas. The concern here is Pennsylvania's future," Denlinger said.
A lack of skilled workers affects everyone, said Barr. "This is holding us back. There’s no question that this is holding us back.”