The story is the same anywhere you look – favorite foods missing from the grocery store shelves, restaurants and shops shortening their hours, delays in getting prescriptions filled. It’s no surprise when you consider that according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2021 47.4 million people voluntarily left their jobs – a phenomenon known as “The Great Resignation.” The situation has affected nearly every type of business, including optical labs.

Durable goods manufacturing has experienced a quit rate of 2.1 percent over the past year, which is lower than some other sectors of the economy, according to the Chamber. However, the organization notes that durable goods manufacturing does have a serious labor shortage: “The manufacturing industry faced a major setback after losing roughly 1.4 million jobs ( at the onset of the pandemic. Since then, the industry has struggled to hire entry level and skilled workers alike… Even if every unemployed person with experience in the durable goods manufacturing industry were employed, the industry would only fill 65 percent of the vacant jobs.”

Even a minor shortage of workers can have an impact on a lab that prizes leanness and efficiency (and what lab doesn’t?), and many have felt the pinch. To understand the situation better, VM talked with two optical lab executives from different parts of the country that have experienced the problem first-hand – somewhat differently, but in each case definitely.

Examining the Causes
The basic cause of the problem is, of course, the changes wrought by COVID-19 on workers and employers. Said Mike Tamerius, president of Precision Optical Group in Clinton, Iowa, “Probably the biggest reason is people choosing to leave because of lack of child care. A lot of folks decided to give it a go on their own as long as they could without returning to the workforce.”

Bill Heffner IV, director of IT, marketing and sales at FEA Industries in Morton, Pa., sees the problem somewhat differently: “A large amount of the work that was affected by the spike in resignations was due to the move from office-type environments to remote work,” said Bill Heffner IV, “Manufacturing and lab work don’t really fall into this category, so they weren’t as affected. We didn’t really have the kind of ‘move to virtual’ for a year that a lot of other business sectors experienced, so we didn’t have to deal with trying to move employees back from remote working.”

Filling the Gaps
Staffing issues have been a major problem at Precision. “It’s probably the biggest challenge that I can recall in this business, said Tamerius. “We have never been back to being fully staffed. We’re currently running about 75 percent of our normal staffing levels.” That has meant more overtime and more responsibilities for individual workers. “We’ve really been challenged, which is not all bad, to find creative ways of sharing job duties and responsibilities, and forced to find more efficient ways to provide the same services that we had been,” said Tamerius. Additionally, the lab has had to make some tough choices to make sure they could service demand. “We’ve had to let go of a couple of customers, which in my 30 years in the business I’ve never had to do before,” he added.

FEA has not been immune to staffing issues, either. Shortages, said Heffner, “Have happened quite a number of times, where we could see someone (or a number of people) out for two weeks at a time.” The lab usually addresses this problem by moving employees around to fill gaps, but “That’s not always possible, especially if we have a number of people out in a given day. We also will add hours or weekend shifts to catch up on any work backups.” However, “We are noticing a lack of employees willing to work later and/or overnight, making it more difficult to stay fully staffed in order to offer the turnaround that we’d like to have.”

Competing for New Workers
Precision Optical Group has to cope with a limited labor pool even in the best of times. Tamerius estimates that the total available labor pool within an hour’s drive from the lab is about 50,000. There are several other sizeable manufacturing plants in town, all competing for the same type of worker. “We have more hiring issues with entry-level folks to work in general production. Those are the positions everyone’s looking for in our local market.” He has observed a striking indicator of the number of open positions in the area: “In our little community we have a total of about eight billboards, and all of them are filled with help wanted advertisements. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’ve never seen a billboard for recruiting before COVID.”

Heffner has also experienced challenges trying to find production workers. “We tend to have a number of applications that haven’t worked in production, which can be a challenging environment for those that haven’t experienced it before.”

Unsurprisingly, the struggle to attract more workers has led to an increase in wages. Said Tamerius, “We’ve seen pretty close to a 70 percent increase in the starting pay scale in our rural Iowa location. On one hand, it’s certainly great to pay folks more. You always feel good as an employer when you’re able to do that. But unfortunately that additional pay you’re giving them is going right back out in higher costs that they have in daily life, like fuel for their vehicles, heating their homes, paying for child care and food.”

FEA has addressed this more competitive environment with a combination of incentives. “We have certainly had a noticeable increase in the wages we’ve been offering over the past few years,” said Heffner. “That, in conjunction with production incentive programs, are the main way that we are attracting and retaining employees. We incentivize monthly based on production, as well as the number of years of service.”

Training Challenges
New-hire training has always been an issue with both labs, because applicants with previous optical lab experience are few and far between. Bringing in larger groups of new, inexperienced employees has created its own challenge for Precision: more training is needed, but with a short staff, experienced workers have less time to provide it. According to Tamerius, “We’ve had to rely on some of the vendors to take up some of the slack on the training, and just more video training, so new people spend more time looking at different training seminars that we’ve recorded.”

The training challenges have been somewhat different at FEA. Said Heffner, “We have changed the training in the sense that we may end up with two or three new trainees at once, as opposed to one at a time as we prefer. This has just been due to the inconsistency in receiving new applicants, as we take them when we can, instead of spacing it out for ideal training time.”

Moving Forward
There are some signs that the overall labor situation is improving. Last year the U.S. gained 6.4 million jobs, the largest increase in history and the trend has continued so far this year. However, there is a long way to go. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in January, there were 11.6 million open position nationwide.

Heffner has noticed some improvement: “It seems only in the past few months that there has been an increase in the number of applications. Before that, it was very sparse in terms of people coming in to apply for jobs.”

Tamerius has also seen some indications that the situation is improving, but the problem is still acute and the implications will continue to be felt: “We’ve felt like we’ve been treading water because we simply cannot aggressively grow our business like we did for so many years. We simply cannot find the workforce to accommodate it. It’s changed the DNA of the business a bit, from constantly thinking about growth to thinking about how we’re going to accommodate new work, and that has long-term implications. Aggressive growth has been who we are and what we’re about for a long time. So our challenge, after all this, is how we can get back to that.”