Cannabis conundrum: Tight job market not the only challenge for manufacturers
Lowcountry automaker Volvo Cars needs to hire 1,300 workers as its Berkeley County plant gears up for electric vehicle production in the coming year, but a couple of key factors disqualifying job candidates in the past are still in play for this round of hiring — drug tests and background checks.
It’s not just a problem for Volvo. Manufacturers across the state are looking to hire from a stagnant, if not shrinking, labor pool. And some are finding drug tests to be a big hurdle for applicants.
Back in 2018, when the Volvo campus in Ridgeville was starting production of its S60 sedan, drug tests and background checks eliminated 70 percent of the candidates who had made it to the final hiring stages. They’d already passed an initial aptitude screening, aced the telephone and face-to-face interviews and successfully completed a preliminary training program.
But when it came to providing a clean drug test and rap sheet, they fell out of contention.
At least they made it that far. Only 12.5 percent of the job seekers made it past the initial interviews.
Volvo might have loosened some of its standards since that first hiring spree. David Stentstrom, the local plant manager, said during a conference last year that the automaker was “very ambitious the first time, having very high ambitions about what people we would actually accept. I think it was way too high a standard.”
This time around, he said, Volvo is seeking candidates “with the right mindset, willing to learn.”
But the pot problem still exists.
“After a candidate has accepted Volvo’s offer, they must complete a drug screening as part of the next steps,” a Volvo spokeswoman said, adding that testing positive for marijuana “would disqualify a candidate from being able to work at our facility.”
It’s not clear what the percentages will be this time around because Volvo has just started the process of hiring for production of its all-electric EX90 sport-utility vehicle and the battery-powered Polestar 3 SUV for its sister brand.
But a report by Quest Diagnostics, a New Jersey-based drug testing giant, doesn’t offer a lot of hope.
That company’s most recent Drug Testing Index shows 4.6 percent of job seekers nationwide tested positive for drug use in 2022 — the highest level in two decades. The majority were traced to marijuana use. Of the more than 6.3 million workforce-related urine tests Quest conducted last year, 4.3 percent were positive for marijuana, up 10.3 percent from 2021.
The percentage of pot-flagged tests in manufacturing settings has nearly doubled since 2008 to 3.5 percent. That’s relatively low compared to the 8.1 percent positive tests seen in the hotel, food service and retail industries, but still a troubling figure in a workplace environment where safety is a top concern and legal liability.
Quest compares such concerns to hopping on the highway with a pot-smoking truck driver.
“When you consider industries like transportation, warehousing and construction, for example, there is a safety concern that cannot be ignored,” Quest said in a blog post. “For instance, how would one feel about sharing the road with a truck driver who has used marijuana several hours before their road trip? Even more — how would an employer feel about that same driver taking to the road with their company’s name on the side of that truck?”
The prevalence of marijuana use and its legality in several states — it’s still a Schedule 1 drug, according to the federal government — has prompted some employers to overlook positive test results when looking for help, or not test at all. But that’s not so easy in a factory setting.
“Suppose it’s a manufacturing facility, where employees are around robots and dangerous heavy equipment,” Brian Kreucher, an employment attorney, told the Detroit Free Press earlier this year. “In that case, employers are probably more reluctant to drop marijuana from the (screening) panel because of the severe consequences of losing a limb or a life in a manufacturing facility.”
In South Carolina, companies can get lower insurance premiums for complying with the state’s Drug Free Workplace Act, which lists marijuana among the banned controlled substances. That law, which is similar to a federal version, also requires companies receiving state grants or contracts to mandate a drug-free environment. While testing isn’t a requirement of the law, it’s a widely used method for enforcing drug-free workplace policies.
Manufacturers that accept incentives like tax credits must abide by all local, state and federal laws, according to the S.C. Commerce Department. That includes the Drug Free Workplace Act.
Even without the drug screening, Volvo’s quest to find 1,300 workers promises to be an uphill fight. South Carolina still has some of the lowest unemployment rates in its history, and the Charleston region has fewer out-of-work residents than any other metropolitan area.
Enrollment at the state’s technical colleges, where manufacturing skills are taught, has dropped by more than 20 percent over the past 10 years, although there has been an increase this year from the all-time low recorded in 2022.
And nearly 44 percent of South Carolina’s working-age population isn’t interested in finding a job, according to the state’s abysmal labor force participate rate.
That means employers like Volvo have to offer more than the other guy — both in wages and benefits — to attract the best candidates. Volvo does well in that regard, with above-average pay, vehicle discounts, on-site food options, a generous parental leave policy and participation in the innovative Lowcountry Go Vanpool service, which provides low-cost transportation to work for people without a vehicle.
But despite all the perks, it still comes down to whether an applicant can supply a clean urine sample. Frequently, it appears, that isn’t the case.