By Len Christopher
As seen in Waste Advantage Magazine, February 2022 Issue
The big labor story in 2021 was wages—not just upward pressure on wages but also changes in the expectations of job seekers. Throughout the year, supplemental unemployment income paid people $18 to $20/hour in some states. That shaped candidates’ expectations about what they could expect to earn when they rejoined the labor force. Those notions, combined with inflationary pressure, made it challenging to find $13/hour workers.
One way we overcame wage pressure in 2021 was by using market-specific analyses to gauge wage trends, then working with our customers to set appropriate, competitive wages market-by-market and site-by-site. In addition, we saw positive results with our employees by cautiously layering-on incentives like sign-on and retention bonuses in markets with low candidate pipelines.
Of course, any labor conversation must include the ongoing impacts of COVID. Like other employers, we worked diligently in 2021 to minimize and mitigate COVID-related operational impacts so customers could continue to run their businesses and achieve their operating and financial goals. We also closely followed CDC guidelines and adopted very stringent and appropriate COVID protocols to keep our employees and customers safe. These protocols continue to evolve as we learn more about the variants.
Looking ahead, we are optimistic about the recycling industry in 2022 and expect ongoing growth and consolidation as the economy continues to rebound. We believe labor issues will remain throughout 2022, but not to the degree they did in 2021. As supplemental unemployment benefits continue to taper off, we believe wage pressure will begin to level out. We don’t see wages dropping, but we don’t expect to see continued or accelerated upward pressure either.
We also foresee a continuation of 2021’s recruiting challenges across the industry, with more entry-level job openings than there are people willing to take them. That’s why Leadpoint’s retention and career pathing initiatives are central strategies for the year ahead, opening doors to advancement and upward mobility for employees in our business. Recruiting and retaining a stable workforce will continue to be a crucial imperative in 2022. We see a red flag for the industry’s workforce when recycling programs start and stop, whether on the collection side or when adding shifts to an existing MRF operation. When programs stop, the workforce leaves. When they re-start, those trained employees have moved, which creates hiring, safety, and financial risk for operators.
M&A activity can also create labor chaos for MRF operators. We expect to work with more customers in 2022 who need help integrating acquired companies and teams quickly and realizing growth expectations with minimal disruption. For example, we are talking with one recycling company that had more than 20 acquisitions in 2021 and has turned to Leadpoint for workforce and consulting support.
Quality control and contamination will continue to be a focus area for the recycling industry and for the MRF labor force. Our managers and employees must maintain relentless attention to quality and double-down on efforts to produce a cleaner product as markets become more stringent. Additional training, reducing turnover, and enhancing managers’ leadership skills will all factor into this effort in 2022.
We also expect to see continued strength in communities’ environmental ethos, with a growing consumer-driven willingness to recycle and pay for more curbside recycling programs. For the labor force, this opens opportunities to work in new areas like cart tagging programs. The industry will require people to work in education and communication roles to interface with residents and ensure the success of these programs.
In summary, we believe labor challenges will continue to add complexity within the recycling industry, requiring companies to face operating pressures on many fronts. It will take collaboration and coordination, and working with partners, to create capability and peace of mind that will keep the industry moving forward in 2022 and beyond.
Len Christopher is Leadpoint’s Chief Operating Officer. In this role, he inspires the company’s onsite performance managers to improve the productivity, efficiency, and profitability of every client’s operation through Leadpoint’s high-performance work teams. He also directs Leadpoint’s customer service and satisfaction efforts. Len has spent his career in the recycling industry. Over the last 20-plus years, he has developed the systems, recycling processes, strategies, and capabilities of some of the country’s most successful recycling operations. He can be reached at (602) 431-0410, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.leadpointusa.com.