Eaton Corporation is one of the many Asheville area employers struggling to fill their various open positions.
Angeli Wright, [email protected]

If you’re a worker in this roaring economy, life looks pretty darn good right now — unemployment is at historic lows, wages are ticking up and companies are hiring like crazy.

But if you’re a company trying to find enough of those workers, well, buckle up, buttercup.

“Locally, it’s sort a war for for talent, that’s for sure,” said Mike Keenan, human resources manager at Eaton Corp., in Arden, a manufacturer of industrial electrical breakers and other equipment. “We are probably at an all-time high level in terms of the tightness of the labor market here in Western North Carolina.”

More: Asheville’s economy is increasingly tied to manufacturing. But is it sustainable?

That is no exaggeration. Human resources officials and managers at several local companies, as well as officials in the employment industry, said the local market is straining to provide enough workers to meet demand.

Local market struggling due to lack of workers

In one case, a McDonald’s in Arden had to close on a recent Sunday due to a lack of workers. “Due to no staff we are closed until further notice,” a sign on the door read.

On a recent weeknight at the Little Pigs Bar-B-Q restaurant on McDowell Street, 17-year-old Allen Crenshaw was busy chopping pork, wielding a cleaver like an old pro. Asked about his experience in landing a job, he cut to the essence of the local market.

“It’s not too hard, because every job in Asheville is hiring,” he said with a laugh. 

A student who plans to get a two-year degree in auto mechanics, Crenshaw eventually wants to work on Volkswagens and Audis.

Allen Crenshaw, 17, works at the Little Pigs Bar-B-Q restaurant on McDowell Street in Asheville. Regarding his job search, Crenshaw said, “It’s not too hard, because every job in Asheville is hiring.” (Photo: John Boyle/[email protected])

Thousands of job openings in mountains

While his assessment of the local job market may be a little exaggerated, it’s not far off the mark.

In the Asheville metro region, which includes Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison, job openings steadily outpace workers.

“At any point in time we’ve got anywhere in the neighborhood of 8,000-10,000 job openings,” said Rick Elingburg, director of the NC Works employment office in Asheville. “It’s been running that way fairly consistently over the last couple years.”

Typically, statisticians consider “full employment” to be an unemployment rate under 5 percent, and Buncombe has been way under that for months on end. In September, the rate sunk to a state best of 2.4 percent.

It’s a powerful trend.

“The Asheville metro has had the lowest monthly unemployment rate in the state — among all 15 North Carolina metros — for the last three and a half years, 42 consecutive months,” said Tom Tveidt, an economist and founder of Syneva Economics in Asheville.

The August rate of 3.1 percent was the county’s lowest since 1999. 

“This is hardly surprising, as our local economy — both Buncombe and the Asheville metro — have been experiencing unbroken employment growth since early 2010,” Tveidt said. “Buncombe has been adding about 2,600 net new jobs each year — the metro about 3,300 — since 2010.”

Eaton employment up 25-30 percent

At places like Eaton, they’re living that trend, holding frequent job fairs and offering better pay and benefits to attract and keep workers. Eaton’s sales have grown about 30 percent from 2017 to this year, said Plant Manager Dave Mannebach, and that translates into a growing demand for workers.

“That’s also grown dramatically,” Mannebach said. “I would say, 25-30 percent (growth in workers), if you were to look at just the high-level numbers.”

The 375,000-square-foot plant in Arden employs between 925-950 people now, and in early November they were looking to fill 35-40 jobs. The plant builds large electrical components such as motor starters, industrial breakers and huge electrical control panels for customers ranging from hospitals to high-tech data farms.

They take custom orders, with a team of engineers and designers creating items to specifications, with workers on the factory floor putting them all together. It’s a start-to-finish operation — sheets of steel and copper coming into a warehouse, where workers and machines then bend and shape the raw materials, cut precision holes in them, build steel cases and then insert intricately wired and soldered components. 

“We bend and punch about 5,000 pieces of steel and about 3,000 pieces of copper every day,” Mannebach said. “That’s a lot of steel and a lot of copper.”

And that means they have a lot of jobs.

“In terms of openings right now we have multiple openings in all of our disciplines,” Keenan said. “We’re starting a second and a third shift, and we also have a weekend shift, and many of our openings are to support those kinds of opportunities.” 

Over the last year, Eaton filled 200 different openings, with 50 of them being in engineering. 

“Quite frankly, we don’t see an immediate end to the demand, and that’s good for the local work force,” Keenan said.

Eaton offers highly competitive wages, as well as a suite of benefits that include a retirement package, health insurance, reimbursement for tuition and a new benefit, four weeks of paid parental leave for new parents.

Eaton also offers flexibility to floor workers on shifts, and that was important to Krissy James, a 37-year-old single mother of four children, ages 8-15.

“Eaton was my best choice,” she said. “They had very good benefits, and they offered a schedule for me to work with my family life.”

A former Navy corpsman, James also took advantage of Eaton’s outreach to veterans. She moved to North Carolina from New Mexico, where she earned an associate’s degree in electronics, instrumentation and control.

She wanted to be in manufacturing and applied to several local companies.

“There’s a lot of job offers,” she said, noting that the process was a little tricky through the computer. “Job fairs were very helpful. I got more calls using job fairs than using the online application process.”

Not far away, Amelia Wolthers, an assembler in Eaton’s medium voltage control product line, was working on the wiring for a large motor starter for the oil and gas pipeline industry. The pumps have motors to keep the oil flowing, and Eaton’s motor starters enable them to start up safely.

Wolthers has been with Eaton for about 18 months. 

“I needed a change,” Wolthers said. “I’d been doing hospitality about 20 years, and I just got burnt out on it. I was like, I just need something where I can work with my hands and work on something I can actually create. I like being creative outside of here, and I felt like manufacturing was a way to fulfill that passion in the meantime.”

She’s planning on making a career out of Eaton, as is James.

“I plan on going back to school next year,” James said. “Eaton pays for your college courses. I’m going to reach for my bachelor’s in engineering, maybe my masters’s after that.”

Besides boosting benefits, Mannebach said they also routinely monitor industry pay to make sure they’re staying competitive.

Mission, Biltmore, Grove Park Inn also scrambling

Manufacturing is humming, and so is another staple of the mountain economy — tourism. At the Biltmore Estate, officials say they’re up to about 2,500 workers, and they often find themselves competing with all sorts of industries, including construction, health care facilities and manufacturing, as workers have so many options now.

Visitation at the estate is peaking, at 1.4 million visitors a year, and that means they need more workers. 

Chris Maslin, senior director of talent and organization development for Biltmore Estate, sounds a refrain that will sound familiar to a lot of local companies.

“In my tenure here, this is the tightest job market I’ve seen,” said Maslin. “It’s a great time if you’re a job seeker. I started with Biltmore right before the recession dropped the bottom out. We’ve had this great climb back up, and Asheville has led the way.”

Biltmore benchmarks its own internal employment rate, and the numbers of late have grabbed Maslin’s attention.

“We’ve been in the 90-93 percent employment rate, and that’s dipped down to about 89 percent,” he said. “We feel like we’re in the danger zone if that starts dipping in the mid-80s.”

They’re not there yet, but some departments are feeling the squeeze more than others. Biltmore has intensified its search for workers overall.

“We do find a lot of folks in the local region,” Maslin said. “I think Asheville as a whole has really benefited from in-migration — people moving to the area, that’s one thing that’s really supporting our base. If we didn’t have people moving here, we’d be in a really difficult situation.”

Tveidt noted that since 2010, Buncombe’s population has been growing at an annual pace of 1.2 percent, while employment has been growing at an annual pace of 2.2 percent. In the Asheville MSA, the population has been growing at 1 percent annually, while employment has been growing at an annual pace of 1.9.

“Our population growth is totally reliant on new people moving here, unlike most communities that also have net growth from having babies (the old fashioned way),” Tveidt said. “This is because we’ve been a baby-boomer magnet for the last decade or two, so our population is older and deaths exceed births.”

Biltmore recruits primarily from within the state and then in the Southeast, but it also reaches out nationally and even globally at times. It too has focused more on veteran recruiting.

At Mission Health, which has 12,000 employees system-wide, the needs are just as intense. As of early November, Mission Health had 853 job openings, according to Tommasanne Davis, director of talent acquisition. While that sounds eye-popping, Mission averages between 700 and 1200 openings, “so this is about average,” Davis said.

The hospital system is having trouble filling some jobs, including entry level support services roles, certified nursing aides, experienced registered nurses, nursing leadership and nursing specialty roles and clinical roles, which tend to be hard to fill. Night shift roles are also tougher to fill than day shifts.

Low unemployment and the tight job market has Mission competing with a lot of other companies for workers.

“For those in the $11-13 pay range, job seekers and job changers currently have a wide range of options in the service and hospitality industries that are similar to those support roles in health care,” Davis said. “This trend is expected to continue, and possibly worsen, as we go into winter months when the job application process typically slows down during the during the holiday season.”

Regarding pay, Davis said Mission’s guidelines are “extremely competitive, and always based on local and regional market data.” This year, Mission “has adjusted shift differentials for RNs, increased base pay of RN managers, and is making salary adjustments for CNAs,” she said.

Mission also has sign-on bonuses for some of RN roles and for housekeeping jobs.

At the Omni Grove Park Inn, Human Resources Director Shelley Lewis said the inn has openings for room attendants, dishwashers, cooks, guest services and more.

“We recently held a job fair here at the resort and extended several offers to new employees the following day,” Lewis said. “We are also participating in career fairs and speaking at several universities from Florida to New York.”

They too monitor pay and benefit trends, and offer a wide range of perks, including some a little out of the ordinary, such as pet insurance, an in-house medical provider on site weekly, and “snow care,” or day care for students out of school for winter weather.

So, are wages going up?

With demand for workers so high, economic theory would suggest that wages also should be going up considerably. And in some cases, they are.

That McDonald’s that was closed because of a lack of workers? It had a sign out front in late November advertising starting wages at $11 an hour, well above the minimum of $7.25, a level at which few employers start workers at anymore.

More: McDonald’s to spend $214M to modernize North Carolina restaurants

At the Brumit Restaurant Group, or BRG, which operates 53 Arby’s restaurants in the Carolinas, Board Chairman Joe Brumit said they have to pay more to attract good workers. BRG’s normal staffing runs between 1,200-1,500 employees.

“Our average wage is the highest it’s ever been at this point, somewhere in the $11 an hour range, and they get benefits on top of that,” Brumit said. “Fortunately for us, with our business model and operations, we don’t needs as many people running the floor as McDonald’s.”

The Arden McDonald’s is corporately owned. A spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Brumit doesn’t consider the labor market to be in crisis mode yet, but he acknowledges that it’s “getting more and more difficult to hire folks.”

“I do know our wages have continued to rise, and we’re having to pay more — and that’s not a bad thing,” Brumit said. “Instead of forcing people to pay double the minimum wage overnight, if you let the market drive it up and let business models adjust, business owners will figure out how to make that work.”

Tveidt, the economist, said wages are rising in the mountains, but not as fast as other areas. Since 2013, the average annual increase in Asheville’s average weekly wage is 2.5 percent. Compared to the state’s other urban regions, that rate puts the Asheville region ninth among the state’s fifteen metros.

It’s also lower than the national growth rate of 3.1 percent and North Carolina’s rate, 3.0 percent. Asheville places well behind state leader Hickory, at 3.8 percent, as well as Raleigh (3.1), Charlotte (3.0), Winston-Salem (2.8), Wilmington (2.8), Greenville (2.8), Burlington (2.7) and Rocky Mount (2.7).

The jobs with the highest growth in wages have come from the area’s lower wage jobs, Tveidt noted, citing Accommodations & Food Services. With an average weekly wage of $368, it’s the lowest wage industry sector, and its wages have been growing at an average annual pace of 4.2 percent over the last five years.

The local manufacturing sector, traditionally among the area’s higher wage industries, with an average weekly rate of $1,047, saw average annual wages grow by just 1.8 percent.

At Biltmore, Maslin said pay is always under consideration, although the estate doesn’t disclose specifics.

“We’re always looking at it,” Maslin said. “We hired a compensation specialist recently to look at how we can stay competitive, and we had adjustments made that certainly have helped us.”

Like other employers, Biltmore has also made sure to keep its benefits package comparable or better than other local companies, even offering employees assistance on buying a first car or home. They also emphasize making a career out of the estate.

That’s the same philosophy Eaton is using, Keenan said.

“Obviously, with unemployment somewhere in the range of 2.8, 2.7 percent here in WNC, it’s a very limited labor market to begin with,” Keenan continued. “So I think we, as all employers, need to be creative, we need to have significant outreach to recruit, identify and attract prospective new employees.”

Booming market for workers, by the numbers:

  • 2.4 percent — Buncombe County unemployment rate for September, 2018.
  • 8,000-10,000 — Number of job openings in the Asheville metro area Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison.
  • 3,300 — Number of jobs the Asheville metro area has added, on average, each year since 2010.
  • 2.5 percent — Average annual increase in Asheville’s average weekly wage, since 2013.

Sources: Syneva Economics, NC Works Asheville office


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