Trading up: NKY employers find solutions during worker shortage

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This story originally appeared in the July 21 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here. As a part of The Sunday Story series, this piece is available to be experienced in three ways:

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It’s an early Wednesday morning in late June, and Cranston Jones sits behind the steering wheel of a large Rumpke recycling truck, stopping every 10 feet or so to collect recycling waste from residents on Autumn Lane near the edge of Erlanger and Edgewood in Elsmere. He’s suited up with a lime-green T-shirt, dark jeans and a ball cap, which is helping keep the rainy mist off his face.

Cranston Jones, 46, smiles in front of his recycling truck. He says he enjoys his work because he likes taking care of communities.

“I love working outside,” Jones said. “The weather don’t bother me. We have rain now, but you can always dress for the cold.”

He rises before the sun, at 4 a.m each workday, to arrive at Rumpke for his shift at 6, “grabbing recycling bins and taking care of the neighborhoods.” He works the route until about 10:30 a.m., then shifts to a new section of town. When Jones is finished there, he’ll help in another area if needed before his workday ends around 3:30 p.m.

“It helps me feel like I’m a part of something,” Jones, 46, said of his career as a Rumpke truck driver. “You can see the happiness in the people. Sometimes, people will come out and tell us we are doing a great job. They offer us water and Gatorade when it’s warm out. They love our service. They show appreciation for what we do and make it easier.”

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As Northern Kentucky companies find their tradespeople aging out of their careers, several local companies are looking to manufacture their own employees. This trend, called upskilling, is proving successful when it comes to replenishing the jobs left behind by the retiring generation, teaching workers and turning them into public-facing employees.

Jones began his career with Rumpke four years ago. He applied twice, but only when he finally got the job did he understand that it would be a bit different than he anticipated.

“I didn’t know I was going to become a driver,” he said. “I was just looking to grab the cans.”

The recycling truck is a 15,000-pound metal monster. The average total body length is nearly 60 feet, and they’re typically 8 feet wide and about 8 feet tall. Third-graders would call this a perfect rectangle, but new drivers would call it daunting.

“I was scared and nervous to drive the truck,” Jones admitted.

Luckily, Rumpke taught him everything he needed to know, allowing him to learn about the truck’s maintenance, earn a commercial driver’s license and master safe maneuverability.

“The trainers were good,” Jones said. “It took me about two months (to go through the training).”

Rumpke, like most trades, is finding it harder to find qualified candidates for its work. The company, along with others, is focused on creating skilled employees not by hiring already qualified workers but by training them at work. This style of work training, called upskilling, is taking some of the pressure off of trade schools and allowing prospective employees to learn about these careers and gain the certifications needed while earning a livable wage in the process, setting them up for greater financial stability.

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A new beginning

According to a 2021 Gallup Poll that surveyed 15,000 people, participation in upskilling is particularly high for workers who are Black, with 64% having done so in the past 12 months, followed by 63% of Hispanic workers. Asian workers (51%) are substantially less likely to have attended an upskilling program in the past year, while white workers are among the least likely to have done so, with less than half (46% ) saying they have participated.

Lauren Allhands, director of Kentucky Career Center Operations, said people of color historically have been marginalized from pursuing higher education, while people who are white are more likely to attend a college or university after graduating high school.

But with the current labor shortage, job seekers are seeing a chance at more universal life equity and a chance to create generational wealth, Allhands said. Employers needing laborers are no longer as concerned about backgrounds or turned off by the prospective employees’ pasts.

A shift in the job force

In the wake of digitalization, automation and higher standards of living, the number of applications for trade schools has been decreasing. Between 2020 and 2022 in the United States, this rate dropped by 49%, according to NPR. But Rumpke has reported seeing a dip in skilled workers for some time.

“This started way before COVID,” said Molly Yeager Broadwater, Rumpke’s corporate communications manager.

“We saw the importance of what we do during the pandemic. No one wanted to go without garbage disposal,” Broadwater said. “I ask my children all the time, ‘What would happen if we didn’t have garbage cleaned up? Where would that go?’ It’s such an important part of our civilization. We have to keep filling these jobs. It’s important for our public health, for the environment — there are so many important factors behind it.”

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Graphic illustration by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor market has a shortfall of 3.2 million employees following the COVID pandemic. Nearly 63.4% of the civilian population in the workforce was older than 16 before the pandemic. Currently, that number has fallen to 62.1%.

The workforce landscape is poised for a crisis. Blue collar employers are searching for a solution to fill the gaps as their current employees are nearing retirement, Allhands said. Because of this hole, employers are turning to new demographics to fill these jobs, whereas they used to have more applicants than available positions.

“That’s just not the case anymore, and now, upskilling is part of the equation,” she said. “The conditions of the market are really helping employers understand the importance of job quality, and that means offering quality wages, benefits — all of those things. They are incredibly important in terms of retention as the (pool of potential employment continues to drain).”

“They can go to Rumpke and learn from people like me who can keep
them focused,” Jones said. “I can show them it’s a good life to work here. You can buy nice cars and a home.”

Upskilling also offers an opportunity for displaced workers to move into other career fields, and potentially for businesses to attract employees during the current hiring crunch.

As Jones pulls through Autumn Lane, his protegé for the day, Trayvon Powell, 28, hangs on to the back of the truck, learning the ins and outs of the waste management vehicle and its controls.

At the moment, Rumpke hires people like Jones and Powell, who may have never otherwise driven professionally, and helps them with learning the trade, earning their CDL and finding a better living.
Rumpke had 17 drivers earn their CDL in the region this year. Twelve of those new drivers now work in Northern Kentucky.

“We are solving the issue with drivers by doing this drivers’ training program,” Broadwater said.

The length of education varies depending on the individual, but the typical outcomes are within two months of training. Broadwater added that participants in this program earn livable wages from the start. Driver trainees start off at around $17-$19.50 an hour, depending on whether they have any driving experience. Once they obtain their CDL, pay bumps up to a minimum of $24 an hour. Rumpke trainees qualify for health benefits and a 401(k).

Trayvon Powell, 28, a Rumpke trainee grabs a Rumpke Recycling and brings it to the back of the recycling truck. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky

Powell had a background in driving delivery trucks for food service companies as a temporary job, but he didn’t have a CDL. For him, the opportunity to earn a CDL and find a job that paid him to learn a new long-term trade was exciting. He completed his classroom training in about a month.

“I’m not big on school,” Powell said with a laugh. “The class, you get paid to learn about the job. It’s pretty cool.”

Douglas Beard, workforce innovation director at the Kentucky Career Center, said upskilling programs can change the lives of participants.

“If they worked jobs 90 days at a time, because that’s temporary employment, after 90 days they’ll change careers. They can never get ahead in this way,” Beard said. “So the idea is if the company can provide them with the credentials needed, they can keep these employees full-time.”

Retention rates for Rumpke drivers are high, mimicking Beard’s assessment. Nearly 71% of CDL earners stay at Rumpke to get the training, according to their human resources department, proving that the early investment in drivers is paying off, Broadwater said.

“The majority of the team members will finish the training,” she added. “The turnover happens within the first year.”

Jones, who worked night shifts in a bakery before his first shift with Rumpke, said the opportunity to grow has been one of the most significant advantages for him.

“Not going to a trade school and still getting a CDL has helped me out a lot,” said Jones, adding that he wishes he had participated in this drivers’ training program sooner. He recently became a training supervisor for Rumpke; it’s why he now is showing the ropes to Powell.

“To watch them become a driver after not having a trade is life-changing,” he said. “Some don’t have a job; they can’t take care of their families. So, for me to be able to do that – I love being able to teach them. I love this job. Sometimes people struggle to make it, and they don’t have no one to guide them.”

Demographic drought

This shift in the labor force has been a long time coming, Allhands said. The national surge of baby boomers aging out of their careers and the simultaneous decline in the millennial generation participating in the blue-collar workforce has left a smaller-than-ever pool to fill those vacant jobs.

Beard said that 15 years after the 2008 recession, the employment market is completely different.

“We went from 2008 to 2010 when people were knocking door to door for employment, and
now it’s the complete opposite,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Where are these people?’ It used to be if you had a felony or court date, you weren’t hireable. Now, companies are saying, ‘We’ll work with you.’ It’s completely different from what employers used to need.”

Now, it’s up to the employers to attract workers and prove why they should work for them.

“The economic state we are in right now has unemployment crazy low,” Allhands said. “Employers are in a new reality. There is a demographic drought, birth rates are low and workforce trends are changing in terms of how people choose to work.”

She added that during the pandemic, companies were forced to shift from working in the office to working from home, creating a better work-life balance for those lucky enough to participate.

“When they were working from home on Zoom calls, employers saw their workers’ homes, their pets, their children,” Allhands said. “Employers realized these were people, not just workers, and they deserved to be treated as such.”

Many white-collar employees began working from home or went to a hybrid schedule, sharing work hours from home and at the office. But one can’t weld, fix a car or pick up trash from their home office, which furthered the workforce shortage crisis as folks shifted their job preferences.

Employers like Rumpke started their drivers’ learning courses to turn anyone into an eligible hire.

“We started this program because we struggled to find drivers,” Broadwater said. “People just aren’t going to the trades anymore.”

Nearby, Arlinghaus Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning also started a 10-week training program to teach prospective employees about its services.

The company’s training wing, Arlinghaus University, teaches at maximum 10 prospective employees at a time, helping them to learn the rules of the trades, then letting them practice with supervision before going on house calls alone.
Photo: An Arlinghaus van. Photo by Noah Jones | LINK nky contributor

“There’s a big market for plumbers and HVAC workers,” said Liz Krenshaw, a job recruiter for Arlinghaus. “They all make more than me, and I have a master’s degree.”

Krenshaw added that Arlinghaus employees start at $16 an hour, more than double Kentucky’s minimum wage. As they leave the classroom and start completing jobs, they earn a 6% commission.
Both plumbers and HVAC workers can make between $40,000 and $80,000 their first year, Krenshaw said.

During their second year, Arlinghaus helps the rookies earn their journeyman’s license, a critical license to have for this kind of work in Kentucky, Krenshaw said.

“In Ohio and Indiana, it doesn’t really do much,” she said. “But in Kentucky, it’s vital. It allows you to take on certain jobs and take on jobs by yourself.”

Owners Heather and Brian Arlinghaus opened Arlinghaus University in 2020 as a way to create more certified candidates and teach them before they can pick up bad habits, Krenshaw said.

“A lot of employers are doing their own training. ‘If you come and work for us, you’ll earn (credentials),’ ” Beard said. “They want to work, and they’ll learn how to work on HVAC systems or plumbing. They’ll earn the certification by working and training with (the employer).”

The city of Erlanger is taking an alternative but similar approach. In early June, Kenton County committed $3.5 million to train 640 residents in the skilled construction trades through an agreement between the Enzweiler Building Institute and Kenton County. This training promises to provide skilled trades training to 240 Kenton County public and private high school students and 400 Kenton County adults over the coming years.

“We are excited about this amazing opportunity to introduce Kenton County residents to the skilled construction trades,” said Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky. “As we have been experiencing accelerated increases in construction wages, coupled with what seems an insurmountable challenge to fill the industry’s workforce impacted by the pandemic, this is an outstanding opportunity for those in Kenton County to establish a lifelong career with rewarding living wages. In the seven core components of construction that we teach, there is a need in Greater Cincinnati to fill over 65,000 career positions in the coming 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Miller added that construction jobs can provide a lucrative lifestyle that is debt-free, unlike with many modern collegiate career paths. The construction skills program offers a learn-while-you-earn opportunity.

“This allows for today’s skilled trades professionals to pass along their knowledge, handiwork and craft skills to those willing to enter the industry and enjoy the benefits of this lifelong lucrative career opportunity,” Miller said.

For Jones, Rumpke has given him something to smile about. He’s grateful to be able to work outside, helping his community and his peers. Of course, he enjoys the benefits of his hard work, too.

“It’s a good life working here. That’s something others haven’t had the chance to do, but I’m here to teach.”

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