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Part 1: 'Help Wanted' signs in Knox, Ashland counties reflect workforce changes as economy recovers

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Southside Diner Hiring Sign

A sign that reads "join our team" is located outside the Southside Diner in Mount Vernon.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series that will explore the reassessment of work standards as well as turnover rates and retention challenges faced by local businesses. It will delve into what nearby counties, states and countries have tried to address the apparent workforce shortage.

MOUNT VERNON — A quick Google search on OhioMeansJobs or Indeed will pull up hundreds of job openings in the Knox County area, across multiple sectors.

Southside Diner in Mount Vernon lost a third of its usual 60-person staff during the pandemic, said shift manager Frank Winter. 

“A lot of people didn’t come back after we reopened,” Winter said. 

Resource Room at Opportunity Knox

Job search resources, including resume preparation, career counseling and free internet, are located in the resource room at Opportunity Knox in Knox County. 

In the beginning of April 2021, the diner announced it would be closed indefinitely on Sundays and Mondays because of staff shortages. 

“But, there’s no shortage of customers,” Winter said.

Taco Bell, located across the street from the diner on South Main Street, is also in need of employees. Josh Lester, the general manager, said he needs to hire 6 to 8 people and is looking for workers to fill positions during all shifts. 

“It’s a smaller town, so as far as hiring goes, it’s hard,” Lester said. “There’s a lot of other places just like us. Competitive pay is obviously a thing.”

Lisa Behrens, assistant manager of the Domino's Pizza store located along the same street, said her shop began offering $100 hiring bonuses in an attempt to attract more job applicants. Behrens recently hired three new employees but is still looking for additional help.

Signs that read “hiring for all positions,” “$100 signing bonus” and “help wanted” line the aforementioned street and several others in Knox County. 

While some local businesses are receiving applicants to their job postings, many say they are not receiving the same number of applicants nor the same number of qualified applicants as they had before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

So, where are the workers?

During the height of the pandemic, several Knox County employers cited health concerns as reasons why workers left.

Knox Area Transit drivers, for example, had a front-facing role that left them at increased risk of infection, county administrator Jason Booth said. 

While KAT had job openings during the height of the pandemic, many still remain, he said. KAT often hires full-time employees after they have worked part-time roles, and KAT drivers have had to work overtime because of the inability to fill part-time positions.

Others have attributed a lack of response to available jobs to pandemic-era federal unemployment benefits.

Ohioans were required to resume weekly work-search activities as part of future applications for unemployment payments beginning May 23, and Ohio ended pandemic-era federal unemployment programs on June 26. 

"We're hoping to see more people come through our doors with the pandemic unemployment ending," said Brandy Booth, administrator at Opportunity Knox Employment Center.

It's too early to tell whether removed pandemic-era benefits will have a long-term impact on employment. Jobs have remained difficult to fill in places where jobless benefits were cut, indicating there is more at play.

There is no clear nor single explanation for the difficulty that some employers are having in hiring, according to Knox-area employers, job seekers, leaders and many economists.

As businesses open to pre-pandemic levels and unemployment benefits are removed, a disconnect between what employers are offering and what employees want remains.

Coming Tuesday: The workforce has reassessed work. More people have voluntarily quit their jobs than ever before, and not all people who lost jobs are seeking new ones.

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.