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Even amid high unemployment, these companies can't find workers

Unemployment in a tough job market
Reality for unemployed Americans during the pandemic 04:53

A record number of Americans are unemployed after the coronavirus continues to slash jobs across sectors like tourism and hospitality, arts and entertainment, which have been decimated by the pandemic. Yet for some employers the reverse is true: They can't hire enough workers to keep pace with the demand for their services.

Job openings abound in potentially risky industries like dentistry and the beauty and wellness field which involve close contact with clients. 

For example, from February 1 to October 23, the year-to-date trend in job postings in the beauty and wellness category on job site was up 6.3% compared to the same period a year earlier. In contrast, the trend for job postings overall was down 14.5% as of October 23, compared to the same period in 2019, according to Indeed's data.

"Some of these sectors, like dental and beauty and wellness, are rebounding as people get services they postponed earlier in the pandemic," said Indeed's chief economist, Jed Kolko, in a post last month. 

Hiring crunch 

Take Gerrae Simons Miller, the owner of Mellow Massage & Yoga in Philadelphia, who reopened her massage practice in July after staying closed for four months to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She says the demand for restorative body work is now through the roof.

"People have been craving these services. We were told many times we should have been essential and people wanted us to be open, but we needed to stay safe, too," she told CBS MoneyWatch.

Hundreds of spa members, who pay a monthly fee for a discounted rate of service, continued to pay their dues while the spa was closed and have built up credit for services that are now redeemable. That demand, coupled with the fact that only about half of Simons Miller's staff of 20 massage therapists have returned to work, has put her in a hiring crunch. 

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Simons Miller has made six new hires since she reopened, and is still looking for about five more massage therapists to join the roster. She's even offering signing bonuses to attract talent, as she now has to compete with corporate giants such as Amazon which has been booming during the pandemic and  is now hiring hundreds of thousands of workers at $15-plus hourly wages plus benefits.

Massage therapists are paid by the service, typically earning between 35% to 55% of the cost of the massage for monthly members, which ranges from $65 to $85 for an hour-long service. 

"Hiring and making sure I have enough talented people to do the work is the biggest issue I am dealing with now. We have built a strong reputation for excellent massages and our clients are discerning — they know what they want and what a good massage is, so we are really challenged to find talent," Simons Miller said. 

She is happy, though, that demand for high-quality massage therapy is so strong. "I would rather have too much work and not enough people than have too many people and not enough work for them," she said. 

Greater demand for dental hygienists

Dental practices, which are also operational again after initially closing because they were not deemed essential, are caring for patients seeking treatment they had postponed earlier in the pandemic.

Dental hygienists, who earn about $80,000 a year in their first year out of school, are in even more demand now than they were before the pandemic, according to Dianne Sefo, clinical associate professor and chair of Dental Hygiene & Dental Assisting at New York University's College of Dentistry. 

"Dental hygienists were always in demand, but since COVID, we sense there is a bigger need. At the college we've had an increase in inquiries from private practices around the area asking if they could post their job openings with us or if we knew anyone who would be interested. There has been a surge of those requests," Sefo said. 

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Over the past five months, Sefo has personally reviewed around 30 inquiries from employers seeking talent from among the school's community of recent graduates. In normal times, she rarely receives this type of inquiry. 

Supporting this observed surge in demand, Indeed's data shows that dental job postings are trending up 6% compared to last year. 

A number of factors explain the tight labor pool, according to Sefo.

"A lot of hygienists during the pandemic decided not to go back to work. Maybe they were getting ready for retirement, or maybe they couldn't figure out childcare. That kept a lot of people at home because it is not a job you can do from home," she said.  "Maybe there were a few people who weren't sure if they wanted to stay in the profession anyways and this gave them an excuse to say, 'I don't want to put myself at risk and continue in this profession.'"

The lack of labor is concerning, as sound oral health remains important. "There is still a need to take care of the public but less people available to so the work," Sefo added. 

Applicants ghosting interviews

While a lack of staffing is holding up some companies' plans to grow, it's forcing others to shut down — in some cases permanently. 

Joe Walsh, the owner of Green Clean Maine, a Portland-based residential cleaning company, said he has struggled to recruit workers since reopening his business in April. 

In March, Walsh laid off all 34 of his house cleaners, 16 of whom have since returned to work. He has hired five new cleaners, but could still use half a dozen more. 

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"The thing that is concerning us now is we can't get staff. There is actually demand there — but I can't get the people," Walsh said.

Sally Libby, who for more than two decades owned The Maids of Portland, another residential cleaning service in Portland, whose workers earned $15 an hour, recently closed her business for good in part because she couldn't find enough workers.

Job applicants would schedule interviews but not show up, according to Libby. 

"The business was there. We had incredible customer loyalty, but we didn't have the quantity of individuals we needed," Libby said. "We had six and we could have used 20."

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