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6 ways companies have tried to solve labor shortages, ranging from brilliant to ethically dubious

Free coding classes. Modeling gigs. Prison labor. Employers are getting creative, but not all solutions are created equal.

6 ways companies have tried to solve labor shortages, ranging from brilliant to ethically dubious
[Source Image: cottonbro/Pexels]

America is in the midst of a nationwide labor shortage—perhaps you’ve heard? In fact, data just released by the Department of Labor shows that the number of workers quitting their jobs hit an all-time high in August. Just as businesses are free to adopt whatever office design they believe is optimal, they’ve also been free since the pandemic began to resolve workplace shortages in whatever way strikes them as the most strategic. Many companies thought inside the box for sweetening the pot: Chipotle raised wages, Amazon is reimbursing college tuition costs, and there’s a Big Tech trend toward introducing free childcare.

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A few outliers, however, got boldly creative. Some of their ideas have proven brilliant and effective, while others look less wise, maybe even unethical. Here’s a roundup of the best and worst labor-shortage solutions we’ve come across so far.

Free coding classes

In May, Levi’s started offering employees free computer coding classes, part of what it called “a company-wide digital upskilling initiative.” It’s an industry first, Levi’s says, and includes AI literacy courses for merchandise planners, coding classes to teach employees machine-learning skills, as well as training in design thinking and product management. The coding classes fall under Machine Learning Bootcamp, a program employees enroll in full time for two months while continuing to be paid.

A new home

Global meat giant JBS invested in a multimillion-dollar program over the summer to build more affordable housing that its employees—many of them immigrants earning $21 an hour—can actually buy. That’s arguably not the same as paying more money, but it is $20 million that can be used by officials and business leaders to increase the local housing stock in the rural communities where JBS operates, creating new home-ownership opportunities for workers and setting up revolving funds that stimulate housing construction. JBS has said these funds would go to rural areas in the Texas Panhandle, western Illinois, southern Minnesota, Iowa, and Alberta, Canada.

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Use of a luxury camper van

Last month, the Chicago logistics company Project44 unveiled a perk that’s only weird if you’re stuck in a pre-pandemic mindset: remote-work getaways in a tricked-out camper van that allow employees to essentially do their normal jobs while road-tripping through Sedona, Glacier National Park, or wherever they want to go. It’s a Roameo conversion van, equipped with a bed, Wi-Fi, electricity, toilet and shower, and two fold-out desktops. Project44 says when it rolled out this perk last month, employees snatched up all of the available dates within 10 minutes.

Modeling gigs

After most of America went into lockdown last year, David’s Bridal suddenly found itself without any professional models. In a pinch, it tried posting on social media half-serious photos that employees shot of themselves wearing their stores’ bridal gowns and tuxes. Employees apparently loved this new side gig so much that when stores reopened, the Wall Street Journal says David’s Bridal kept using employees, only this time with professional photographers in paid shoots. They’re now paid a flat stipend, have their hair and nails done for free—and depending on the shoot, may get to take home the clothes they model.

The company says about 300 employees have participated so far, and that internal employee-engagement scores measuring how connected workers feel to the brand are up almost 20% from pre-Covid levels.

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Prison labor

In April, the candy brand Russell Stover launched a program at its Kansas production facilities that fills open positions on the production lines with prison labor from a Topeka correctional facility. The Guardian says about 150 prisoners now earn $14 an hour working at the plants, but unlike their un-incarcerated colleagues, receive no benefits or paid time off, and must surrender 25% of their pay for room and board, plus another 5% for a “victim’s fund.” They also pay for gas out of pocket for the almost two-hour commute by bus.

Extra volunteer job duties

Michigan State University’s own staff shortage stretched to include dining services, and that recently prompted administrators to send an email asking professors if they’d be interested in picking up shifts serving students cafeteria food for free. “Faculty and staff from around campus are invited to sign up to assist in the dining halls!” said the email, which was sent to deans and chairs around the university. A signup form asked them to confirm that they’d agreed “to do this volunteer work for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons,” not because of coercion. The pushback was swift, seemingly validating what a recent survey found: that 81% of higher-ed employees say “hidden responsibilities that are not transparent in job descriptions” are a big reason why they’re quitting in large numbers.

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