PUTNAM COUNTY — This past Friday, June 1, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest unemployment numbers for the nation. For the month of May, the U.S. economy added a seasonally adjusted estimate of 223,000 new jobs, lowering the national unemployment rate to 3.8 percent. As widely reported, this represents the lowest unemployment rate since April of 2000, and many analysts expect it to fall further.

With the continued drop in unemployment, companies must work harder than ever to find and keep qualified employees. Though challenging for businesses, low unemployment also represents an opportunity for many of the county’s communities, as noted by Christine Clymer, President of Columbus Grove’s Chamber of Commerce.

“If a company can incentivize a prospective associate to want to come back to their hometown to work, they tend to be very successful,” Clymer states. “Knowing people and becoming involved with your community at a young age helps build a support network of sorts to motivate [those raised here] to want to return to their hometown.”

“In our area,” Clymer continues, “We see sign-on bonuses given for certain trades and tuition reimbursement for associates who are willing to further their education or training for the good of the company.”

Companies considering expansion are paying closer attention to the quality and availability of the area’s workforce as well. “In the past, some of the top factors business and industry considered when choosing a location were: availability of sites and buildings, construction costs, utility costs, labor costs and local incentives,” says Amy Sealts, Director of the Putnam County CIC. “Today, the top factor businesses consider in choosing a location is proximity to laborshed and access to a qualified workforce.”

Sealts also points to a number of CIC initiatives designed to assist businesses with addressing those exact needs. These include working to connect school principals and counselors with human resource managers around the county. Coordinating with multiple agencies as well as every school in the county for the now annual Elevate Careers & Connections event started two years ago. Partnering with Ohio Means Jobs, which can provide screening, assessment, training, and even funding for some workforce needs. And, completing Business Retention & Expansion visits, which involves discussing challenges, trends, future plans and how the CIC might assist a business through the economic development office.

According to Sealts, “Workforce needs are a part of every conversation at every business.”

And, it seems, companies have also become more sensitive to the needs of employees. “I’m being told employers are being asked about schedule flexibility,” says Craig Stechschulte, head of Kalida’s Chamber of Commerce and a Business Loan Officer with The Union Bank. “And, that they are fielding more questions regarding benefits packages than they are about strictly wages and/or salary.”

Clymer agrees that the current labor force is looking beyond financial considerations when seeking employment, saying, “Flexible schedules or job sharing are unique benefits that some companies offer to allow associates the opportunity to have a ‘work/life balance.’ The average work-week doesn’t run nine to five, Monday through Friday any longer. For instance, some employers have associates work four 10 hour days to allow them a ‘free’ day during the week to make appointments, etc.”

With expectations being that the labor market will only tighten further in the coming months, the lowering unemployment rate will likely increase the creative approaches to acquiring and retaining employees. Building strong connections between area schools, communities and businesses, while offering employees benefits beyond a good wage or salary, seems to be the approach many in the area will take to meet this challenge.