Local Businesses Strain to Find Skilled Labor

Local Businesses Strain to Find Skilled Labor

Low regional unemployment rate means headaches for local businesses looking to expand.

An extremely tight job market has some Herndon businesses scrambling for new ways to recruit skilled, educated workers as one of the hottest regional economies in the country continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.

"There aren’t any workers left out there, they’ve all been employed," said Dr. Stephen Fuller, an economics professor and regional economic analyst at George Mason University in Fairfax. "Employers are starting to find that if they’re going to fill these positions … these workers need to be attracted from somewhere else in to Fairfax County."

In March, 2006, unemployment rates in Fairfax County were down to 2.3 percent, according to the Fairfax County Economic Index, a monthly economic report published by George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, of which Fuller is a part.

"When you have a total of 620,000 jobs in the county and an unemployment rate that is very low, it’s very difficult to find employees," said Jerry Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. "There’s a lot of competition for good labor out there."

"The economy peaked and now a lot of people [employers] are going out and trying to find good workers, and they’re having to offer high wages and benefits to attract them," said Fuller. "It’s like the housing market … the market favors the workers here, definitely."

BECAUSE OF THE LIMITED number of qualified workers able to adequately fill positions in telecom and engineering fields, as well as just about any position that requires a college degree, employers are starting to have to offer larger wages, more complete benefit packages and a more satisfying and upward-moving environment to workers, according to Gordon.

"For the people who live here, it means that they have a lot of options," Gordon said. "Income tends to be higher and working at one place and switching to another location in order to move up is much more common."

For recently-graduated college students, this means more flexibility in job selection in Northern Virginia and negotiation of salary and benefits.

"For the worker, you can consider more job offers, you don’t necessarily have to rush and take the first job that is offered to you," Fuller said. "If you’re going to have a limited choice as a worker, you’ll get a bad deal, but now its moved to where the employers can’t afford to sit around and think about a worker. You better get him quick or someone else will snatch him up."

THE BOOM MARKET for workers has affected the towns that headquarter successful businesses as well, according to Gordon.

"The Town of Herndon also provides its public services to businesses, so it will get its commercial revenue from that business, which is a good thing for the town," Gordon said. "Residents take up money in services, whereas a business will tend to give more revenue to the town than it uses … so that provides more disposable revenue to the town."

"Also, there will be an influx of residents into the town," he added. "As the population grows, Herndon will continue to see more residents and more businesses and you get more tax revenue for the town from this."

THE LARGE NUMBER of businesses drawn to Fairfax County has now caused the number of available jobs for qualified workers to begin to swell at the seams, according to Fuller.

"I know a lot of places in Fairfax County, they’re operating 10 percent empty," he said. "They’re having to outsource those jobs out of the area … they can’t fill them here."

"There is an economic cost to unemployment being so low in that you can’t do all of the work out there, so you start losing some of that work," Fuller said. "People [aren’t] moving out of here … but the work will."

"When you grow too fast you get congestion, and that’s where we’re at right now, and the economy will go down," he added. "Just like you don’t have enough concrete and steel to build all of the buildings in construction, you don’t have enough workers."

According to Eileen Curtis, president of the Herndon-Dulles Chamber of Commerce, finding qualified employment has been a problem for some area businesses but not to the point in which she was worried about a wholesale slowdown of the economy.

"I don’t see anything at an emergency level," Curtis said. "I do know that there is an undercurrent … in that it's hard to find a lot of qualified people for work."

One of the employers who has felt the pressure of finding qualified work in Fairfax County is Danny Vargas, owner of small Herndon-based marketing company, Varcom Solutions.

"Since the market is so rich right now, you can’t just post an ad and walk away, sometimes it might get filled right away but probably it will just languish," Vargas said. "What I’ve had to do to find people to work for me is to think outside the box."

Vargas said that he has employed a lot of workers on a freelance basis for several of his company’s projects.

"The key takeaway for businesses is to be flexible and the second takeaway is being able to look outside the box to find talent," he said.

"People have a choice of where they can work," Vargas added. "The day where you could hire someone and not provide a positive work environment for them and expect them to stick around 20 years, those days are long gone."

A RAPIDLY GROWING economy is met by a growing population and the total number of residents in Fairfax County is expected to increase by about 15 percent in less than 20 years, Gordon said.

"In Fairfax County we’re at about 1,050,000 residents, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has projected about 1.3 [million residents] by 2025," Gordon said. "That population will grow whether we want it to or not, so our responsibility is to bring more businesses in to help [Fairfax County municipalities] pay for public services."

"Companies come here for the strong, highly-educated work force," Fuller said. "The economy has made this area the premiere economic region in the country."

"It’s not like we have very rich people, we just have a lot of people who have very jobs, a high diversity, and that trend will continue," he added.

Despite the fact that the economy will inevitably cycle back into less fortunate conditions than now, Fuller said that local communities have nothing that should cause them to worry too desperately about their region’s economic future.

"We have a safety net here in Fairfax County, and that’s the federal government," he said. "The economy here might soften up but it won’t ever collapse."

"It’s like having a rich uncle. Uncle Sam."