Amazon sees ample area workforce to fill job needs

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BELOIT - Amazon soon will be looking for 500 workers for the distribution center it's building in Beloit, but the international marketer is not the only company with help-wanted signs out in Rock County.

Unemployment rates have been low for the past year, hovering above and below 3 percent. Will employers find the workers they need in this labor market?

Amazon is optimistic and has done its homework, said company spokeswoman Jen Crowcroft.

"We look at the workforce and found talent in abundance in Wisconsin," Crowcroft said via email. "We're also responding to customer demand and want to make sure our fulfillment centers are close to customers."

Amazon will offer a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive health care from date of hire and a 401(k) retirement plan with 50 percent match.

Forward Janesville President John Beckord, a longtime observer of the local economy, said employers can attract all the workers they need, if their wages are high enough.

Amazon is offering less than the going rate for warehouse-distribution work, Beckord said.

Economist Russ Kashian at UW-Whitewater said he has students who have worked for $20 an hour in summer warehouse jobs.

Beckord said a company's benefits package could help in some cases, and Amazon has some attractive offerings: up to 20 weeks paid parental leave, a flexible "ramp back program" that allows new parents to ease back to work with reduced work hours and a leave-share program that allows employees to share their paid leave with their spouses or partners.

There's also an educational benefit. Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition in selected skill areas, which include game design, visual communications, nursing, computer programming and radiology, the Beloit Daily News reported.

The 1 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center (about one-fifth the size of the former Janesville General Motors plant) now under construction is looking to hire 500 people in time for the 2020 holiday season, according to the Beloit Daily News.

As workers consider whether they should jump from their current jobs, wages will be key, Kashian said.

"The benefits sound good, but you can't buy dinner with benefits," Kashian said. "At the end of the day, your primary consideration when you're making $15 an hour is how I pay the bills today. Benefits are wonderful, but they don't pay the bills today."

But $15 an hour is better than some other jobs, and "anything that puts pressure on low-end wages to push them up because of competition is a good thing because it will benefit the people who are most in need," Kashian said.

Rhonda Suda, CEO of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, said wages are a top concern of workers, but a comfortable, welcoming workplace also plays a role as workers tell each other about their employers.

"We are in a very tight labor market," Suda said, and that means many companies have to look at how to be efficient and automate as much as they can.

Amazon employees in Beloit "will work alongside Amazon robotics to pick, pack and ship small items to customers like books, electronics or consumer goods," Crowcroft said.

Having good middle-management that knows how to manage and motivate employees is also key, Suda said.

Part of motivating workers includes the opportunity to move up in response to job performance and the feeling that the company they work for isinvolved in their community, Suda said.

The state Department of Workforce Development provided a statement saying it is "confident" the economy can produce enough workers for openings in Rock County.

"In fact, the website has over 3,000 active job seekers in Rock, Green, Walworth, and Jefferson counties alone," said spokesman Ben Jedd.

Andrew Janke, economic development director for the city of Beloit, is similarly optimistic.

Janke noted Dollar General built a distribution center of the same size in Janesville three years ago and found enough workers.

Janke noted many Beloit companies draw from nearby Illinois, where Rockford-area unemployment is about 5 percent.

Look in the parking lots of Beloit companies, and you'll see Illinois license plates, Janke noted.

Janke pointed to one piece of the local infrastructure that attracts warehouse operations and also brings in workers: "The Interstate is a convenient people-mover for our workforce here."

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