Where have all the good hires gone? As a retailer, it’s a question you’ve likely asked yourself in the past six months.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for workers has returned to 99% of pre-pandemic levels. But the number of people who have or want a job has stagnated since May 2020, according to government statistics. The U.S. economy has largely recovered from its 2020 cliff dive, yet there are still about 3.5 million fewer people employed than there were two years ago. Which explains why we’ve heard from so many jewelers recently that “staffing” has become a major stressor.
“For sure we are seeing a labor shortage in the industry,” says Suzanne Courvisier-Mathis, founder of jewelry industry recruitment agency Diamond Staffing Solutions. “Suddenly, jewelers have to make a decision: get someone enormously talented and pay them more than you usually would or take someone less qualified and be willing to invest in training.” In other words, the “perfect fit” hire for fine jewelers has become elusive.
But back to that pressing question—where have all the people gone?
The answer is complicated. Pandemic stimulus programs during both the Trump and Biden administrations sent checks to Americans in 2020 and 2021, and home values have soared in the U.S. in the past 18 months, allowing many homeowners to pull money out in refinance deals to live on. With their finances in decent shape, some have opted to not return to their jobs.
The service industry has been especially hard-hit by this mass opt-out; workers burnt out from laboring under difficult conditions during the long pandemic have quit or not returned after furloughs or temporary layoffs. The bad (and worsening?) behaviors of stressed out U.S. consumers, the subject of a New York Times story last week, hasn’t helped reel them back in.
The unusual reality prompted the New York Times to posit in October 2021, “The U.S. does not have a pure labor shortage so much as it has a shortage of workers willing to accept the working conditions that today’s economy often demands.”
Courvisier-Mathis says within the jewelry industry, “The better the companies treated their people during the lockdowns, the better their [staffing] situation is now. When they paid them, those people stayed. The jewelry companies who said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening, see you later’ lost good people.'”
Bench jeweler and specialists such as diamond setters are commanding compensation at levels rarely seen before, due to high demand for craftspeople in the industry. “Those candidates can be choosey,” notes Courvisier-Mathis. “Now jewelers are paying more for people, because they have to.”
But in general, she says, employers in today’s market “need to go looking for good people, they don’t just appear. It’s all about relationships at the end of the day. I’ve gone way back in my pool of candidates to check in and say ‘How are things? What are you doing now?’ We’ve recently placed people we’ve known for a long time.” Courvisier-Mathis has also tracked down experienced employees who were laid off from companies during the pandemic—a savvy move retailers can also explore.
Her advice for finding quality hires includes asking employees and community members for word-of-mouth recommendations and signing up for a premium membership on career-focused social website LinkedIn to do targeted searches for candidates. “That expense is well worth it,” she asserts. “You’ll have access to more names, more messaging options. Also, you can see where they’ve been and see who they know, which is really important.”
And when jewelers do find the right fit in this employee-driven market, “they still have to do their due diligence and call references and do background checks,” she cautions (Courvisier-Mathis uses GoodHire.com to do her background checks). “Remember, anyone you hire is handling thousands of dollars of your merchandise. Pay attention to red flags and your instincts.” Even if it leaves you temporarily short-staffed, “If you don’t feel it, don’t do it.”