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Labor Pains

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Americans are quitting work in record numbers and many economists expect the “Great Resignation” to extend well into 2022. While some people (primarily Baby Boomers) are opting to retire or start their own businesses, others are remaining on the sidelines due to COVID fears or childcare issues. There is also a contingent that doesn’t feel the financial need to go back to work thanks to more than a year of government largesse.

With so much turmoil brought on by the pandemic, supply chain issues, inflation and a transition to digital business, the labor landscape has undergone a seismic shift and many employers – including those in most aspects of the team market – have reached their wits’ end when it comes to hiring and retention.

In short, it’s hard to find, hire and keep good people in the team sports business.

The U.S. Labor Department reported 10.4 million job openings in September, 2021. Industries with some of the highest numbers of job openings are experiencing the highest turnover, especially across retail and manufacturing. As of 2022, there are 268,871 people employed in U.S. sporting goods stores, an average increase of just 0.5 percent over the five years between 2017 and 2022, according to research firm IBISWorld.

Here, we look at the state of the labor market, its impact on the team business from both the dealer and vendor perspectives and how the industry will press forward in 2022 and beyond.

Dealers Speak Out on Hiring

In these uncertain times, the only sure thing for most team dealers is that attracting and retaining employees is becoming harder, not easier.

“It’s been the biggest problem we have,” says Bob Fawley, owner of Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, OH. “Our core employees are fine, but seasonal labor for our football reconditioning business has been very challenging.”

Fawley notes that the biggest thing that’s changed in the past 24 months is the difficulty of gaining access to buildings and schools due to COVID. But as more business continues to be done online, he finds that “sales is a different animal than it was a decade ago” and it takes a different man or woman to navigate those changes.

A technical aptitude is essential, he points out, “and being on the OrderMyGear platform has helped us make up some business. Also [due to supply chain issues], people are realizing that it’s not an advantage for a school to do business with just one vendor.”

At this point, with interest rates rising and inflation starting to bite, Fawley is cautious about hiring.

“I can’t bring myself to take a flyer on a bunch of new salesmen — I need to see what happens. I think [the industry will] struggle through anther year of labor shortages.”

He adds, “We’re still at it and trying to keep all the wheels on. I’m excited about the future because there’s still a lot of business and folks are still buying. You just have to be smart about how you do things.”

California: Discouraging Work

On the West Coast, Aaron Karsh, director of operations at California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA, laments that hiring has been tough, “especially in California, which has been doing everything it can to discourage people from taking jobs.” He cites pandemic shutdowns and free-flowing money from the government as being key factors contributing to the problem.

“We’ve been looking for eight or nine months to hire two full-time employees — we got two part-timers, but that still leaves us down one person. We also lost four to five employees.”

Karsh reports that the dealer had scheduled interviews with 17 or 18 people who simply didn’t show up, so they obviously weren’t interested in getting hired. “They probably just needed to prove to the state that they were looking for work so that they could continue to collect benefits,” he laments

In 2022, California Pro Sports plans to seek new hires and to do this Karsh believes that offering referral bonuses will be a better investment than using Instagram posts or other online job sites. In fact, he says the company hired two new employees via referrals from current employees.

To help balance the business’ labor needs, Karsh has also turned to cross-training employees to do different jobs. Although flexible hours are becoming more important to workers, “the challenge is to find people that want to work when we’re open.”

Road reps present a different, more vexing challenge. Karsh observes that many are close to retirement and there aren’t a lot of people eager to get into a life “on the road.” However, a younger generation of reps and coaches who are now in their mid-30s are more tech-savvy than the old guard, which is a huge help to the business.

For office staff, Karsh points out that the pay scale has dramatically changed and is out of balance with other industries. “People can make more in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, so being competitive with pay and benefits is a big challenge,” he says.

Looking ahead, he believes the job market will get even more competitive. “We’ll have to do more to retain people. The jobs are out there, but there’s a mismatch with job seekers. We’re all hoping things will be better in 2022.”

Meanwhile, at Garretson’s Sport Center in Greeley, CO, owner Todd Garretson hasn’t felt the full effects of the hiring crunch because of low turnover among current staff

“We have about 28 employees and eight to 10 have been with us for between 15 and 30 years,” he says, while others have been there for five to six years.

“We’re very particular, we pay fairly and we have a family atmosphere,” he says.

The key qualities that Garretson looks for in job candidates are the basics such as being on time, honesty and motivation. “It’s important to see how much they’re willing to learn on their own, how outgoing they are and how driven they are to succeed. The upper 20 percent of people differentiate themselves from the rest,” he says. “We’re always on the lookout for good people. We can always find a place for them and we can train them to do whatever needs to be done.”

To find the right fit, Garretson relies on word-of-mouth and referrals. “We go through two or three interviews before hiring a person. We’re not as concerned about a person’s resume as we are about life experience and drive,” he explains. “I think the market will loosen up and more people will get back into the workforce in 2022.”

Ron Stein, GM of Frank’s Sports Shop in Bronx, NY, is finding that it’s tough to hire workers right now. Fortunately their core employees are very solid, so there’s a good foundation on which to build a staff.

“We advertise online and on Indeed.com and we’re always looking to hire,” Stein says. “You should never walk away from a good person because you can train a good person to do anything, but it’s difficult to find new hires for positions such as cashier.”

He adds, “Just getting people in the door for an interview is the biggest challenge. But the pendulum will swing back. When there’s less free money from the government, people will look for a job.”

Many employers – including those in most aspects of the team market – have reached their wits’ end when it comes to hiring and retention. In short, it’s hard to find, hire and keep good people in the team sports business.
The ASB Strategy

Even for large team dealer conglomerates such as ASB Sports, the labor market is a concern. “It’s been difficult to attract and retain retail employees.We expect to pay more, especially for VP or staff-level retail employees,” says ASB Sports CEO Greg Miller. “The whole thing – COVID, the supply chain and inflation – are all spiraling together, making it harder to find employees and lots of companies are competing for the same employees.”

On a positive note, “There’s a lot of loyalty in our industry and we’ve been able to retain most of our key performers,” he reports. “It’s important to have more communication with employees and to let them know that they’re valued as key members of the team.”

In regard to road reps – a trouble spot for many dealers – Miller points out that ASB Sports employs a wide spectrum of ages, so it’s not a big issue.

“A small percentage have left, but most reps are competitive and will battle challenges to deliver to their customers,” he says. “More use of technology, especially with younger coaches, also bodes well. But you still need face-to-face meetings to keep relationships alive.”

In other areas of the business, such as customer service, ASB Sports is hiring wherever it can find good people. Production and warehouse positions present the biggest hurdles.

“It’s very challenging because it can’t be done remotely,” explains Miller. “We’ve worked with people to create flexible schedules and have worked with high school and college students. We use referrals and we offer referral bonuses. You have to use all strategies in this day and age.”

Miller notes that while the supply chain mess hasn’t affected hiring very much, it has impacted workloads, primarily in sourcing, inventory, procurement and production.

“High performers are being called on to work more and overtime is the new normal due to the supply chain disruption. It’s kind of a balancing act,” he says.

Miller expects the labor market to continue to be challenging through 2022. “If you can be a place where people want to work and you communicate well, that’ll help. You have to adapt and be resilient, creative and nimble,” he adds. “I’m excited for 2022. There will be opportunities — it’s just a matter of being diligent and forging ahead.”

“We’re not as concerned about a person’s resume as we are about life experience and drive.” – Todd Garretson, Garretson’s Sport Center
Challenges for Vendors As Well

The labor shortage is also exasperating for many vendors, including Dave Banning, CEO of Reusch and TRUsox. “It’s been extremely difficult even getting people to apply, but now that [government] benefits are starting to end, we’re seeing more candidates apply. We’re hoping to see more people getting back to work in 2022.”

For Reusch, which operates in the ski market as well as the team business, selling and staffing challenges differ. In ski, more attention is being paid to regional shows, which are important to reps and dealers. But on the team side, particularly in soccer – a core business for Reusch – there’s no infrastructure such as the ski market has, so reps are given bigger territories.

“There have been more retirements and we’re not seeing younger replacements coming in,” says Banning. “There are fewer dealers and larger territories to cover, meaning fewer visits from road reps.”

In the office and warehouse, the situation is equally challenging for Reusch, which now offers a significant wage increase of up to 20 percent for office and warehouse employees. Nevertheless, only two out of every five people show up for job interviews or follow up afterwards.

“In addition, the supply chain is very undependable, which makes it hard to know when to have people available,” Banning adds. “It’s messing up the spring selling season. In the year ahead, we hope to see more honest applications from people who want to work in the sporting goods market.”

Like Banning, Yvette Beale, director of people operations at OrderMyGear, is struggling to get and retain employees, especially in the highly competitive tech arena.

“People want remote work, a better work/life balance and better pay and benefits,” she explains. “Lots of businesses are offering remote work and there are lots of open jobs, so people are jumping ship to gain better pay and benefits.”

Beale reveals that OMG’s hiring strategy is to focus on relationships with colleges and universities, creating a pipeline for good employees with a focus on attracting recent graduates with little experience.

“We can train people internally and promote from within, and this helps us retain top talent,” she explains. “We really promote our culture and highlight the ‘magic.’ We’re a team-oriented and team-centric organization, we create solutions and we have lots of employee events both on-site and off-site.”

She notes that in 2021, OMG hired 85 people and the company wants to hire as many or more in 2022.

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