Milwaukee Biz Blog: Sign of the times: “Now Hiring”

Ideas for retailers

Seems every time I turn a corner there is another sign posted seeking employees. Why is that and does it mean that the wave of unemployment has reversed itself?

Let’s start with the question of the perceived seismic shift in unemployment. Last month’s unemployment reports would suggest the economy has been recovering and the rate of unemployment has once again reached a level of reasonableness. On June 16, Wisconsin officials released new unemployment numbers, stating that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at the lowest point in 15 years. Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) says the rate dropped from 4.4 percent in April to 4.2 percent in May.

Reality, however, is that many remain severely underemployed and still others have received unemployment for such a long period that they are now off the books.

Business must be good for some, however, with “Help Wanted” signs seemingly everywhere. And it’s not just Milwaukee. Our company consults within the consumer health care space and my business travel crisscrossing the country allows me to see job markets firsthand in many cities – some larger than Milwaukee and many much smaller. Fact is, these signs are posted across the U.S. in retail and restaurant windows, on manufacturer marquees, and are displayed in front of countless public buildings. Problem is, these jobs are not attracting unemployed workers, require qualifications not possessed by the unemployed, or have become so ubiquitous that they are simply not seen.

Speaking from the context of the retail market that our firm works within day in and day out, there is the perception of low wages, which may also keep the signs as permanent fixtures. But frankly, the $15 minimum wage makes me nervous. Why? Because one of two things are going to occur: 1) retailers may react by reducing staff, thus diminishing already suspect customer service levels and adding to our country’s unemployment ranks; or 2) retail prices may increase to a justify the added expense, putting some products out of reach of customers or reducing their likelihood of their purchase.

Now before readers object to my view on this topic, let me provide several alternatives that provide support to an increased hourly wage for workers and sustainable profits for the retailer.

  • Retailers could streamline their inventory levels to ensure the right products are always in stock while eliminating slow movers that require staff to maintain them and command expensive shelf space.
  • Technology could be better utilized to more effectively connect with and activate shoppers.
  • Retail prices could be more strategically managed thereby capturing more profit on some items to justify the added employee expense.
  • The hourly wage adjustment could and should reduce the cost of recruitment as employee loyalty increases – if anything, retailers should invest in training and support for their staff to increase their value, skills, and happiness.

This column addressed two seemingly disparate topics; unemployment and minimum wages. Personally, I believe the two are closely linked and, especially in the retail space, must be looked at simultaneously. It should be no secret a company’s employees have a tremendous effect on the bottom line. Hiring practices, compensation, and training must work in concert.

Dave Wendland is vice president of strategic relations for Waukesha-based Hamacher Resource Group Inc.

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