Edward McKersie has been warning his clients that times are changing.
Employers have ruled the job market for most of the past eight years, but with Maine’s unemployment rate at a 15-year low, job seekers are gaining the upper hand, said McKersie, founder and president of Pro Search, a Portland recruiting and staffing firm.
“The market’s tight,” he said, and that means it might take longer to fill open positions and require better pay and benefits to attract well-qualified candidates.
The changing market is a result of the state’s plummeting unemployment rate, which has dropped to a level not seen since August 2001.
The state Department of Labor said Tuesday that the jobless rate in December was 4.0 percent, down from 4.1 percent in November, putting the all-time low of 3.2 percent set in December 2000 within sight.
The state rate is comfortably below the national unemployment rate, which was 5 percent in December.
Since peaking at 8.3 percent in February 2009, the Maine rate has been coming down steadily, but has fallen most sharply in the past 18 months – it was still at 5.7 percent in June 2014.
McKersie said it takes his recruiters longer to find good candidates for jobs. In the fall he launched a website, Live+Work in Maine, to tout the state’s improving job market and quality of life, seeking to expand his recruiting range.
He said a health care company recently signed up with Pro Search after finding that its own job postings weren’t working.
“They either get no response or they get responses and the people aren’t qualified,” he said.
“It’s a buyer’s market for the job seeker,” agreed Laura Thibodeau, owner and president of Springborn Staffing in Portland.
Like McKersie, Thibodeau believes the job market is on the verge of seeing wages rise, either to attract new employees or to keep current workers from jumping ship.
“It gets to be a ‘pain point’ ” for employers, she said. “Turnover gets to be very expensive.”
And it’s not just a problem of attracting doctors, nurses, engineers and other highly skilled workers. With unemployment so low, Thibodeau said, the market is reaching a point where employers have to cast a wide net to find workers, even for jobs that don’t require high skills.
“The low-hanging fruit has kind of gone away,” she said.
Hannaford Supermarkets, the largest private employer in the state with 7,500 to 8,000 workers, is finding it sometimes has to take extra steps to keep its rosters of store checkout clerks and stockers filled.
Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom said the situation varies by market, but the company has seen a shift in places where the job market is tightest.
“We used to have a greater number of people walking in and asking us” about open positions, Blom said. Now, many of the stores have to put up signs to attract job applicants and corporate recruiters attend job fairs to find employees, he said.
The changing environment will force employers to get creative, said economist Charles Lawton of the firm Planning Decisions.
For one thing, more companies have to recognize that they will need to train employees, rather than counting on them coming out of school job-ready. And the employers will have to be flexible, he said, because Maine’s growing older population means there’s a large number of potential employees among the ranks of the newly retired.
Lawton said they might be lured back on the job with a part-time schedule. And for employers, there’s the benefit of not having to provide insurance coverage because many have Medicare.
“It’s just such a tight market because of the demographics,” he said. “It isn’t the labor market we grew up with.”