Businesses in Howard feel pinch of low unemployment

Employers try offering bonuses, transportation to attract workers

March 05, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The signs are everywhere in Howard County.

"Help wanted." "Now hiring." "Apply within."

The county has the lowest unemployment rate in Maryland -- 1.3 percent as of December. But what is good news for the economy is bad news for employers, who have had to offer benefits from tuition reimbursement to signing bonuses as they struggle to fill positions.

At the Pizza Hut in Frederick Crossing Shopping Center, fliers advertise health benefits, a 401(k) plan and tuition reimbursement up to $500 for prospective employees. Pat Irwin, a manager at the store, says people are sometimes surprised by the benefits package.

"You wouldn't think Pizza Hut would offer all that, but we do," he said. "We are really understaffed right now, and it's hard to get people in here to even fill out an application."

Steve Girard, owner of the four-store Bagel Bin in Howard County, is also offering tuition reimbursement and health insurance. Last fall, Girard offered a signing bonus of $250 to $500 to employees who agreed to work a minimum of 32 hours a week for six months.

"That was something I felt compelled to do because I couldn't get anyone in the door," Girard said.

"Everyone who is looking for anyone from a receptionist to senior managers is in the same boat," said Dan High, owner of High Performance, a human resources consulting firm based in Columbia. "One of the reasons why I started this company is because I found that one of the biggest business issues companies faced was finding good people."

Maryland's unemployment rate dropped to a record low of 2.8 percent in December, down from 3.5 percent the previous year. That left Maryland's rate almost a full percentage point below the national average of 3.7 percent.

The booming economy and a steady increase in the demands for goods and services has triggered low unemployment and reams of help-wanted ads.

In Howard, the sunny economic climate has sparked an alliance between government and private industry on a range of projects, from attracting employees to dealing with transportation and other issues that affect the job market.

Region-wide problem

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Authority, said staff shortages are a region-wide problem.

"If you look at the counties we border, they also have unemployment in the single digits," Story said. "It's not just a Howard County issue."

Local officials estimate that about 85,000 Howard residents travel from the county to go to work. In September, the county began a $100,000 advertising campaign to promote its new Web site, www.howardjobs.com, designed to attract technology workers.

"In the first 30-day period there were 27,000 hits on the Web site," Story said. "The reality is that all sectors are really feeling the pinch."

Transportation program

But attracting workers is only part of the problem. Carl Balser, chief of transportation planning for the county, said several programs are aimed at getting employees to and from work, including a reverse-commuter program that picks up employees from Baltimore's West Side empowerment zones and brings them to jobs in Howard.

Beginning in the middle of this month, Balser said, the county plans to extend Howard Area Transit Service hours to 10: 30 p.m. in retail areas and 12: 30 a.m. in industrial areas off Route 40, Route 175 and portions of Route 1. Officials also are seeking grant money for a program that would offer transportation vouchers to agencies that help people find work.

"What we have found is that a lot of the employers can get people to the jobs, but they then have problems getting home," said Balser, who added that there are plans to expand service routes. "We are trying a number of different things hoping to reach some of the people who need jobs."

Different approaches

Kara Calder of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce said businesses benefit from taking a different approach to attracting and retaining employees. The chamber plans to add a job service to its Web site this spring, and create an employers' resource guide and training partnerships with businesses.

Calder said several companies are working with Howard Community College to create feeder programs that would train students for specific job markets, such as health care. There also has been an increase in using tools such as the Internet and billboards to attract workers, she adds.

"I think people are forced to be creative," said Calder, director of governmental affairs and special projects. "While we realize that a good economy and low unemployment are good things, we also know that it creates a tremendous challenge and we are dedicated to helping with those problems."

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