Included in this weekend’s The Cullman Times is our inaugural Salute to Industry magazine. While we’ve previously published Salute as a special section in the paper, this is the first time we’ve published it as a magazine. We believe this presentation of Cullman’s businesses and industries matches the class and quality of the business community here.

Since the magazine went to print, Cullman County’s unemployment rate has become the lowest unemployment rate in Alabama. This development is not surprising, given the innovative nature of Cullman businesses and the strong work ethic and talent among our workforce.

This sets up challenges and opportunities for us. With a low unemployment rate and many industries expanding operations, there is going to be a labor war as employers compete to attract talent. This is good news for employees, but businesses will have to find that right balance that allows them to compete for employees while still turning a profit and reinvesting in themselves.

Several business leaders we spoke with for Salute to Industry noted their company culture. That is going to be a key factor for attracting employees. Workers who are treated as if they are disposable become disposable. In a climate where it is easy for skilled workers to find employment, employers are going to have to look beyond wages to retain workers.

A recent conversation on social media gave voice to a challenge facing Cullman County that the Chamber of Commerce identified in a housing assessment it commissioned last year. Posters commented on the difficulty of finding rental properties at affordable rates.

The Chamber’s Housing Needs Assessment also identified more rental properties as a need for Cullman’s expanding workforce and noted, “Antidotal comments from employers included industry buying housing and making it available to specialized workforce for rent due to limited supply of rental housing.” Employers should be encouraged to explore this avenue as a way of attracting employees with highly desirable skills.

There are other challenges prospective employees have to overcome, including childcare – especially if parents work early shifts that start before their children begin the school day – and finding and maintaining reliable transportation in order to get to work.

In addition, many workers may be part of the “sandwich generation,” meaning they are caring for elderly parents and young children simultaneously. Juggling doctor appointments, school events, family life and work responsibilities can stretch these caregivers to the breaking point, where they leave the workforce or suffer mental health issues.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average hourly earnings increased 3.3 percent from September 2019 to September 2020. What this looks like in actual dollars is a $15.58 per week increase on average. For production and non-supervisory workers, the real average hourly earnings increased 3 percent, but combined with an increase in the average workweek, the total increase was a 4.5 increase in the weekly workweek. In dollars, that’s a $59.02 increase per week on average.

Increased wages are certainly good for workers and the local economy – more disposable income means more economic activity – but there is only so far employers can go in a wage war. Instead, they’re going to have to be just as innovative in attracting and retaining talent as they have been in establishing and growing their businesses.

We have no doubt Cullman’s industries are up to the challenge. They’ve shown time and again a willingness to take chances, think out of the box and create partnerships that advance the interests of businesses and the community.

At the very least, they can do what HomTex CEO Jerry Wootten makes a practice of doing: expressing gratitude to his employees, several of whom have been with the company for decades. “I say thank you a lot,” he said.

And we say “thank you” to the employers and employees in Cullman County. You make this a great place to live.

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