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The Impact of Substance Abuse on Finding a Quality Workforce

Employers are paying the price for America’s drug problem in terms of finding a quality workforce, and communities with histories of substance abuse are falling off site selectors’ lists.

Workforce Q4 2017
According to data from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD), as reported in EHS Today, employer costs related to substance abuse totaled $81 billion in 2016; however, the rising use of drugs, especially opioids like heroin and prescription pain killers, leads most experts to believe that total will rise.

Just how many workers are using drugs? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of people who admit to ever using an illicit drug rose from 31.3 percent in 1979 to 48.8 percent in 2015, as reported by WalletHub. Prescription drug abuse is equally rampant. A National Safety Council/NORC study on the impact of opioid abuse on missed work found that the leading cause of missed workdays in America over the past year was “pain medication use disorder” (29 days), followed by “illicit drug use disorder” (18 days), followed by “marijuana use disorder” and “any substance use disorder” at 15 days each. Alcohol use ranked fifth at 14 days compared to the 10 days missed by the general workforce.

If you listened to National Public Radio’s recent series on America’s opioid crisis, you learned that in the 1950s and 60s, nearly all working-age men 24 to 54 were in the labor force. Now that rate is 88.5 percent. While some of this is attributed to the retirement of the baby-boom generation and a tendency to pursue post-graduate degrees, there is enough credible data to believe opioid addiction is also a factor.

The Resulting Productivity and Safety Issues for Manufacturers

Drug use and addiction is a frustrating dilemma for manufacturers in America who already have large voids in their workforce due to a lack of skilled labor, an aging labor force, and close to record low unemployment rates. It’s also adding to the negative perception many foreign companies have of the American workforce as unskilled and unqualified.

A study on the impact of opioid abuse on missed work found that the leading cause of missed workdays in America over the past year was “pain medication use disorder” (29 days), followed by “illicit drug use disorder” (18 days), followed by “marijuana use disorder” and “any substance use disorder” at 15 days each. National Safety Council/NORC The situation is particularly vexing for rural communities that struggle to attract and maintain large employers for myriad reasons, lack of an available workforce being chief among them. Disturbing statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),5 show that methamphetamine addiction is most prevalent in rural areas where job opportunities are limited.

Columbiana Boiler, which manufactures galvanized containers in Columbiana, Ohio, was recently profiled in a New York Times article (7/24/17)6 about the growing problem American drug use is having on our workforce. The story reports that one quarter of the company’s job applicants fail drug tests, making them ineligible for employment. Applicants don’t lack the necessary skills for Columbiana’s welding, machine floor, and forklift operator jobs, but the marijuana and/or opioids flowing in their bloodstream impairs their ability to think clearly, putting them and co-workers at risk of injury or worse — death. It also increases the likelihood of absenteeism and presenteeism (i.e., at work but not fully functioning), both of which have profoundly negative impacts on productivity. Despite the fact that Columbiana Boiler loses approximately $200,000 worth of orders each year due to manpower shortages, its CEO Michael J. Sherwin says flatly, “We can’t take any risks with drugs.”

Interestingly enough, there is a growing argument — particularly among those who live and work in states where marijuana is legal — that drug screening by employers for marijuana usage should be abandoned. Their argument that screening for a legal substance is unfair is, at best, weak because it doesn’t take into account the fact that the active chemical in marijuana stays in the bloodstream much longer than alcohol. This makes it impossible to tell whether a worker used the drug that morning or many days ago.

American drug use has become so pervasive that it is now customary for site selection professionals to consider its prevalence when analyzing potential investment locations. As noted earlier in the case of Columbiana Boiler, manufacturing professionals often work in environments where proper precautions and operating procedures must be followed to avoid the possibility of death or injury. Impaired workers can also damage the quality of the products being manufactured, which could also lead to consumer death or injury. Employers simply cannot afford the risk of having workers who may be impaired in their production setting.

The Effect on Site Selection
American drug use has become so pervasive that it is now customary for site selection professionals to consider its prevalence when analyzing potential investment locations. However, this is not without its challenges. The data that is available often applies only to large geographies (i.e., states, countries), can be quite old, may only reflect drug usage as associated with criminal activity, and may not capture nuances such as the use of legal medications for nonprescription purposes.

As a result, drug usage information on prospective communities must be gathered via original survey of existing employers or staffing agencies with questions such as: “What percentage of applicants for your production operations fail to pass initial drug screenings?” and “What drugs are most commonly cited for applicants’ failed drug screenings?” This methodology is limited in effectiveness because it is not holistic and may not give a true reflection of the prevalence of the problem in a given area or be applicable to all manufacturing employers.

Employers are well aware of the ill effects drug use has on the ability to effectively operate and compete in the marketplace. As the issue escalates into a national crisis, economic development officials are realizing the yeoman’s work needed to reign in the problem. Finding solutions with lasting results will require a collaborative effort with healthcare, business, government, nonprofit, and research institutions. Until then, it is our responsibility as site selection professionals to advise client employers to locate in areas that offer the greatest opportunity for long-term success. Drug use is a deal-breaker. Thus, communities are advised to take action now before it gets the better of them.
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