MALTA — The labor shortage was on display Tuesday in the foyer of the Malta Price Chopper:
One hour into a job fair, there were two empty chairs and a single name on a list of job applicants.
To a greater or lesser degree, the multistate grocery chain is seeing similar response to job openings at its other locations.
Overall, Price Chopper and Market 32 supermarkets are short roughly 2,000 full- and part-time retail employees.
That works out to just a handful per store, enough that the staff might feel stretched but the shelves are still full and checkouts run smoothly. When you add in 130 other supermarkets in six states with a similar handful of openings, the help-wanted numbers add up quickly.
Between its Schenectady headquarters, its local stores and its Rotterdam distribution center, Golub is one of the Capital Region’s largest private-sector employers. Its hiring needs are similar across the company’s entire footprint, said Sharon Gerasia, Golub’s director of organizational development and talent.
Paul Colwell, manager of the Malta supermarket, said he’s about a dozen shy of the 200 employees needed to fully staff one of the larger locations operated by the Golub Corp.
“In my 22 years as a store operator, this is historic,” said Colwell, a 32-year company employee who has been the manager of 10 other stores.
“We’re constantly using devices like social media” to recruit, Colwell added. “The competitive wage thing, it’s affecting all of the retail sector, not just us specifically.”
The sole job applicant in the first hour of the job fair was a 16-year-old student who lives locally and is looking for his first job.
He’d gotten good reviews about the store from friends who work there and said he was willing to give Price Chopper the weekend hours it needs its part-time employees to work.
Also requesting information Monday (but not submitting applications) were an older couple trying to line something up for the grandson who’d just moved in with them; a man inquiring on his son’s behalf what Price Chopper’s minimum employment age is (it’s 15); and a man waiting for an Uber ride who possesses extensive food service experience.
The youth was a promising first applicant of the day: Many employees start off working part time on the front end, often for minimum wage. They can grow into higher-skilled, higher-paid positions with the company, or they can build some cash savings and work experience that leads to a step up their career ladder at another company.
Golub human resources specialist Barbara Kessler was on-site Tuesday in Malta to take applications and speak to potential applicants. It’s a role she fills regularly at several stores in the region, and it has seemed unending in the past year.
“I think it’s the same as you’re finding with all of these other industries — retail, restaurants. It’s a national challenge,” she said.
Price Chopper/Market 32 managers express pride at their workforce stepping up in the spring of 2020, keeping the stores open and mostly stocked when the public health crisis created a surge in shoppers’ demand for groceries.
But not everyone was comfortable having so much interaction with the public as COVID-19 spread, then or now.
“Our applicant flow through COVID decreased by almost half,” Gerasia said, and the growing number of new infections being reported now won’t help that. “With the numbers creeping back up, it makes us nervous,” Gerasia said.
However, she attributes Price Chopper/Market 32’s hiring problems not as much to COVID as to competition: Other companies are just as desperate to draw from the same inadequate labor pool.
Gerasia acknowledges the term “minimum wage” isn’t a great recruiting tool, even if it mainly applies to high-schoolers with no work experience.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things in terms of pay,” she said, calling it a delicate balance to strike.
Minimum wage in upstate New York for most jobs is now $12.50 an hour. Few of the 365 postings on the Price Chopper website Tuesday included an hourly wage figure; those that did include $20 an hour for meat cutters in Plattsburgh, $19.50-$24.70 at the Rotterdam warehouse, $12 for front-end workers in Lincoln, N.H., and $14 for the night crew in Essex, Vt.
Other tools the company has used include hiring bonuses; scholarship programs; flexible hours; 25,000 Advantage Card points for the successful teenage applicant or their parents; and retention bonuses.
This last point, retaining the workforce the company and its stores already have, is important, Gerasia said, because the loss of a trained worker is felt by their teammates.
“Having that lack of staff is hard on the people that are there,” she said.
Gerasia and Colwell both started in a Price Chopper supermarket — she in 1984, he in 1989 — and advanced within the company. A key aspect of their recruiting efforts is to point out this opportunity to grow and highlight other non-cash benefits.
“What I find to be a great differentiator on the wage competitiveness is really liking who you work for and where you work,” Colwell said, noting that many employees who’ve left for other jobs have come back to the Malta store.
“Most of our leaders were walk-ins,” he added. “Started in another department, someone took the time to work with them and show them the ropes, and they realized it’s a pretty cool place to work. I’ve always been about cultivate within, promote from within.”