(A lot of) Help Wanted: experts, employers say local job market is strong

Aaron Garrison, director of distribution at Weis Markets, stocks bananas at the company’s location in Selinsgrove. Weis Markets continues seeking new employees for its corporate office, but especially at its stores and distribution center.

For those out of work and looking for a job in the Valley, there are hundreds of open positions available.

Online job searches return page after page of vacancies across the four-county area and just beyond, from professional health care positions to entry-level warehouse work.

Finding the right fit is the challenge, said Jamie Mercaldo, site administrator of the local PA CareerLink. Sometimes, it’s not a challenge at all.

Mercaldo spoke of three different jobseekers who after receiving one-on-one help at the Sunbury CareerLink office, were on the phone with local companies within minutes of applying for work. Two were called back for interviews before even leaving the office.

“The job market has been good for a really long time. For the most part, anyone who wanted to be working was working,” Mercaldo said.

Anyone still seeking a job can find help with a search or preparing for an interview contacting a local CareerLink: www.pacareerlink.pa.gov. On Oct. 28 in honor of National Manufacturing Month, there will be a localized job fair with 12 companies registered so far offering 350 openings. The virtual event is from 1-5 p.m. via the Zoom videoconferencing app: https://paiu.zoom.us/j/93643236194. Pre-registration isn’t required.

The CareerLink can help with registering for unemployment, too. Jose Mercado and Niurka Torres went there for just that. Mercado lost his job about a month ago when he was laid off by a meatpacking firm. He decided to seek unemployment benefits but said he’d rather work.

“I’m looking for work but I decided to come fill out for unemployment because they haven’t gotten back to me,” he said of his former employer. “I would like to go back.”

Unemployment rates spiked in Central Pennsylvania as it did across the state when the pandemic took hold in March. The local rate rose from 4% in February to above 14% in April. It’s continually dipped since then, falling to 8.1% in August and about 2 points below the state average, according to the latest data available from the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Corp. (CPWDC) in Lewisburg.

The civilian labor force dropped, too, with nearly 26,000 fewer people seeking work across a nine-county area studied by CPWDC including all four Valley counties: Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Union.

By mid-July, CPWDC data reflects that there were more job postings than persons deemed unemployed for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Nationally, The Associated Press reported the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell slightly last week to a still-high 840,000, evidence that job cuts remain elevated seven months into the pandemic recession. The latest report from the Labor Department said the number of people who are continuing to receive unemployment benefits dropped 1 million to 11 million. The decline suggests that many of the unemployed are being recalled to their old jobs. But it also reflects the fact that some have used up the 26 weeks of their regular state benefits and have transitioned to extended benefit programs that last an additional three months.

William Berry, research analyst with CPWDC, pointed to local changes from July to August when 3,800 people found work and the unemployment figure shrunk by 5,300.

He noted that there’s nuance to figures documenting the size of the labor force and the count of unemployed persons. Not all job postings represent open positions, he said, since sometimes companies post openings to get attention or collect data.

Many people lost work to the virus and are probably still “waiting for that phone to ring,” Berry said.

“You see a growing labor force and growing numbers for employment,” Berry said. “There are jobs out there.”

Count Furmano Foods of Northumberland among firms actively hiring. It’s tomato packing season there, the company’s 100th. Furmano’s is hiring weekly for seasonal work but there is a “continuous need for (full-time) employees throughout the year,” Larry Etchison, vice president of human resources, said.

“It’s not as simple as hanging a ‘Help Wanted’ sign out front,” Etchison said.

Furmano’s uses the online job search Indeed along with social media to recruit employees. They’re staffing three shifts across five days, and sometimes Saturdays. Three of the active job postings have starting wages of $13 hourly with two extending up to $22 hourly.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been at a place where unemployment is so high but it’s more challenging to find the talent we’re looking for,” said Chad Geise, company president and CEO.

That could be due to the strength of the social safety nets in place post-pandemic, Etchison said. The virus risk itself must also be a factor with other potential employees, Geise said.

Geise said his company seeks candidates who are willing to work well with others and who are inventive in finding better ways to work and advance the firm’s operations. Reliability is essential, too.

Etchison said entry-level employees can take advantage of internal training opportunities to help advance through the ranks and develop a broad skill set.

“We want folks who are really passionate about being a part of something and helping us improve moving forward,” Geise said.

Weis Markets continues seeking help at its corporate office but especially its stores and distribution center. The latter two see consistent hiring, according to Dennis Curtin, director of public relations for Weis.

Because of the competitive hiring environment, Curtin said the grocery retail chain offers sign-on bonuses of $2,000 for product selectors at the warehouse as well as referral bonuses for associates who recommend successful candidates for product selectors and drivers. Newly hired store personnel receive $500 sign-on bonuses, he said.

Jeff Lowery, director of recruitment at Geisinger, said the health care system has needs for workers outside of patient care and often, a high school diploma may be enough to get a foot in the door.

Geisinger’s competition for employees extends beyond other hospitals and health care networks. It competes for workers in foodservice and warehousing, Lowery said, and particularly in environmental service workers as demand in that sector ballooned with the pandemic.

The company adjusted starting wages in the past as one enticement. Health benefits are another. There are bonuses for referrals and signing on to work.

Geisinger launched a new mobile-friendly careers page, jobs.geisinger.org, and opened a career center in downtown Danville. Jobseekers can find help there with applying for work, creating resumes, writing cover letters and preparing for interviews.

Lowery said those seeking entry-level work with Geisinger would do well by becoming certified in CPR or basic life support along with completing medical terminology training.

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