The Springfield Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel with staffing experts discussing hidden workers. Pictured, from left, Springfield Director of Workforce Development Sally Payne, Penmac Staffing Regional Vice President Nancy Riggs, Missouri State University professor James Kaatz and Mother's Brewing Company founder and owner Jeff Schrag. (Photo by Rance Burger)

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As small business owners in Springfield battle uphill to find a sense of normalcy with COVID-19 still lingering, many are hiring. Many more would like to hire, but are struggling to bring in the right person or persons.

At the end of April 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated Springfield’s civilian labor force at about 240,000 people. The figure represents people who are not employed by the U.S. military or the federal government, are not institutionalized and are not farm workers. This total for Springfield has been shrinking since it reached a high of 243,400 people in February 2020, before the pandemic.

While the civilian labor force is smaller, Springfield Director of Workforce Development Sally Payne notes the unemployment rate for Greene County for April 2022 was 1.9 percent. The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reports 399 new unemployment claims by Greene County residents in the month of April.

“In Greene County, our unemployment rate is shockingly low,” Payne said. “The labor force participation rate, honestly, is sitting at about 62 percent. Strangely, that hasn’t changed over the past several years.”

While the phrase “people don’t want to work” gets posted repeatedly on social media feeds, work ethic or discouragement is not the only factor affecting Springfield’s workforce participation rate.

“There are so many factors that are coming into and affecting the labor shortage,” Payne said. “We had boomers retiring at a very rapid rate, we have a population decline, we have the gig economy, we have a lack of child care and transportation, early retirements — I mean, there are so many factors.”

A statistically significant number of potential workers are not engaged in the workforce. “Hidden worker” means a person experiencing distress and discouragement with the process of seeking work. Their regular efforts to find work they are suited for have failed.

Why care?

Employment rates, unemployment rates and job vacancies are among the economic figures often discussed daily in high-pressure board rooms and low-pressure kitchen tables. A presentation given to key Springfield business leaders shed a different light on the labor market, and it may make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the hiring process in 2022.

Payne led a panel discussion with three other staffing experts June 15 at the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, as part of the “60 Minutes to Success” series of discussions geared toward small businesses. The panelists shared advice on advertising jobs, interviewing candidates, setting expectations for workers and on drawing compromises.

Rethink job descriptions

Nancy Riggs is the regional vice president of Penmac Staffing Services, Inc. As one of Springfield’s two main staffing agencies, Penmac is a leader in helping companies find truck drivers, manufacturing workers, office workers and substitute teachers.

Riggs said the traditional hiring processes tend to focus on the credentials the hidden worker lacks, and ignores the capabilities and values the person can bring to the employer. Job descriptions can often be lengthy. Sometimes, job seekers look through advertisements looking for reasons to disqualify themselves from even applying.

When they do take the time to apply, workers sometimes feel as if they are shouting into a tornado.

“I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m applying, I’m applying, and no one is getting back to me,” Riggs said.

Riggs gave an example of a recent case where a client needed to hire an assistant to work in a company’s human resources department. The employee would have several responsibilities, and a long job description listing duties like recruiting, screening, family leave, accounting and an array of other duties.

“I said, ‘What’s the No. 1? What is it that they are going to be spending most of their time on?’” Riggs recounted. “‘Payroll.’ Well then, we need to find a payroll person first, because, ‘Guess what, all of the other stuff — you’d be able to train on, right?’ and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I’d be able to train on everything else.’”

Riggs advised employers to hone in on the most necessary skills, and be willing to take time to train workers in other areas, or in skills that won’t be essential to daily operations. Don’t gut job descriptions, she said, but question them.

Before posting a job description, it’s a good idea to look for similar job descriptions and openings in the same market, looking closely at the salary, benefits and paid time off other companies are offering.

Another time-consuming, but potentially valuable recommendation Riggs made to small business owners is to take the time to send feedback to all candidates who apply for an open position, even if the feedback is very brief.

“We interview a lot of people, and we hear this over, and over, and over where they say, ‘I’ve applied for all these jobs and I never heard back,’” Riggs said. “I would highly recommend that you look at your system, because they remember. They know who and which companies they never heard back from, and which companies — even with a rejection letter — that they got a response from.”

Work quickly and examine yourself

Ghosting doesn’t just happen to job seekers who feel like potential employers never call them back. Workers are also passing on interviews, or even accepting jobs and then not showing up for their first day.

“You make an offer to someone on Friday, and they accept to start Monday, and they don’t show on Monday,” Riggs said. “Well, it’s because they got a better offer over the weekend. I mean, that is happening day in and day out.”

Just like employers may interview more than one candidate, a market that favors job seekers can mean the workers are collecting offers and taking the offer with the best pay, the most flexibility or the best opportunity for their career.

“That’s when they’re lining up several different offers,” Payne said. “It’s so tight right now, they might have multiple things on the table, and they’re going to jump at the one that’s the most attractive.”

While small business owners are often juggling the hiring process with day-to-day business management tasks, Payne said it’s important to carve out the time to make the hiring process move quickly.

“If you are onboarding and it’s taking you a month, or maybe even a month and a half to onboard somebody from interview, offer, all of that, you’re probably going to lose them,” Payne said.

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Dr. James Kaatz is a political science professor at Missouri State University who teaches classes in human resource management, public administration and local government administration. He also does human resources consulting. He shared a major human resources project he did for the launch of Chicago-based Eastern Airlines in 2017.

“It was almost impossible at that time to hire mechanics on [Boeing] 767’s, because the 800-pound gorilla in the room was called FedEx and they were hiring every mechanic,” Kaatz said. “So while there wasn’t a labor shortage in general, there was a labor shortage for me.”

Kaatz said he examined what other airlines offered for health insurance benefits, and then advised the airline he worked for to increase its spending on health coverage.

“We already had health care, but it became important that we could tell people, ‘Our health care plan kicks some butt,’” Kaatz said. “‘You’re going to have a very low deductible, you’re going to have low co-pays.’ I know it cost us more money, but that helped us bring people in.”

Kaatz said the airline also increased the amount of vacation days offered to new employees, by two weeks per year in some cases.

Payne said instead of making a job description into a list of tasks an employee is expected to perform, make the job description more about the company the worker will be applying to join.

“You have to sell yourself as much as the candidate is selling themselves,” Payne said.

Workplace culture considerations

“Culture” is an ambiguous workplace term with different meanings for different workers and for different organizations. Generally, “culture” refers to the collective character and personality of an organization and how it works, or “the way we do things around here.”

“Sixty-eight percent of people looking for jobs are looking for culture, not necessarily monetary compensation,” Payne said. “Maybe money only motivates to a certain point.”

Jeff Schrag, founder and owner of Mother’s Brewing Company, described a workplace culture that many of the hiring managers and small business owners in attendance at the chamber of commerce event found surprising.

“I’ve never cared what somebody wears, if they smoke pot, if they drink, if they have tattoos, if they have non-ear piercings, how they wear their hair — I’ve never cared about that in any of my businesses or with any of my workforce, and that’s a big thing in a lot of companies,” Schrag said.

Schrag said he also tries to be casual about setting work hours, to a point. In a brewing operation, there are certain jobs that require three or four people to be in the same place at the same time. Schrag presently employs 27 people, and he said that’s the largest number of employees he has ever had in his entrepreneurial career.

“I do give people all of the free beer they can drink so they don’t feel compelled to steal,” Schrag said. “They don’t take very much if you give them unlimited stuff, that’s kind of one of those odd psychological things from folks. Have we had trouble? No, and I don’t know why, I just think I’m lucky.”

Schrag said he has been reluctant to post job descriptions to the internet, and is more apt to hire an existing employee’s acquaintances or someone with a connection to Mother’s. Over time, Schrag said he learned how to motivate different types of people.

“There’s three types of employees that I’ve encountered over the years,” Schrag said. “There’s a time employee, a task employee and a responsibility employee, and you need all three of them.”

Schrag elaborated that time employees expect to show up for work at an assigned time and leave work at a certain time each day, and will stick to that schedule without  much fail or variation. Task employees tend to work at a certain set of objectives each day, and will leave work when they have completed their objectives or reach a stopping point. Employees driven by responsibility are less likely to watch the clock and more likely to do their job based on a sense of obligations they feel.

In the hospitality industry, in particular, Schrag said it’s more realistic for employers to recognize, “everybody isn’t living their dream job and they need to have something outside of work.”

Members of Generation Z bring different values and expectations into the workforce, and with a shortage of workers across industries, they have some leverage to negotiate with.

“They question everything,” Kaatz said. “Another thing I’ve noticed about this generation than the previous one is they really value their time off.”

That doesn’t mean Gen-Z is lazy, Kaatz said. He relayed that he finds college students today to generally hold definitive career goals, and they also take steps to identify the paths they will need to take to reach their job goals before they finish college. He said the students he taught a decade ago were much more likely to be undecided about their future careers.

What is a hidden worker?

Harvard Business School researchers Joseph Morrow and Manjari Raman wrote “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent,” a 72-page piece funded by the Harvard Business School and by information technology giant Accenture. The paper’s executive summary explains that Fuller and Raman conducted their research with a survey of more than 8,000 hidden workers and more than 2,250 executives across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany. 

Hidden workers fell into three subcategories that the researchers defined. The majority, 63 percent, are “missing hours,” which means that they could work full-time, but are stuck in part-time work for one reason or another. Another third, or 33 percent, are missing from the workforce. They are not unemployed for long terms, but are unemployed due to life events, such as health issues, mental health events, problem pregnancies, military involvement or family relocation.

The remaining 4 percent are “missing from work” because of direct issues that sideline them from obtaining full-time employment. These can be health issues like injury or disease, mental health issues like severe depression or rehabilitation for substance abuse, being a caregiver for a spouse or parent, an economic disadvantage that prevents them from being able to work full-time, or they are a military veteran whose skills don’t always transfer directly into the workforce.

More on hidden workers

Read the full report, “Hidden Workers, Untapped Talent”

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 17 years experience in journalism. Reach him at or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger