Workforce Shortage Felt All Over

Armando Mejia has been turning down jobs for much of the summer because, as owner of Sparkle Cleaning and Painting in Fish Creek, he hasn’t been able to find enough workers.

“Right now we can employ up to five people, three cleaners and two painters,” he said. “For painting, I’m solid booked until we get snow, and I have people waiting until next spring. We want the help now, and I know it’s not going to happen.”

In addition to advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth, Mejia has advertised for help with the Job Center in Sturgeon Bay, and he posted help wanted ads in Green Bay and Milwaukee newspapers.

“Not even one call,” he said.

So he has had to turn down jobs from regular customers.

“They’re shocked. They say, ‘When can you get me in? I’ve been your customer for 10, 12 years.’ I have to tell them I don’t have the help. And the help that I have, I’m running them at 12, 13 hour days. That’s another thing that kills me, the overtime. I’ve got to pay them the overtime.”

When it’s suggested that housing is always a problem, particularly for seasonal employment, Mejia counters, “I’ve got three apartments that are vacant. You can live there for free. Just pay the utilities, if you work for me. No one will take it up. And for every hour they work, I’m going to give you the bonus of another dollar at the end of the season, just to make it more interesting. I just can’t get someone ambitious to call and say, I’ll give it a shot.”

Mejia has not been alone this summer. The Pulse help wanted pages were brimming with ads for cleaners, restaurant help and retail employees this summer. We also heard reports of owners and faithful employees pulling double shifts and more just to get by during a summer when help was hard to find.

Sandy Duckett, CEO of We Are Hope, Inc., an umbrella organization that includes the Door County Job Center, said they have been hearing from employers desperate for workers.

“One had something on Facebook for somebody seven days a week,” she said. “I’m not sure what kind of response you’re going to get for that. That’s difficult, seven days a week. I think we have to be a little more creative about how we approach individuals.”

One of the major hurdles facing employers and potential employees is the lack of affordable housing, Duckett said.

“When they’re looking at seasonal work and they can’t find housing, that becomes a detriment to employment. I think that’s one of the things that’s occurring,” said Duckett. “Community success happens when there’s variations of different kinds of housing so people can move up the ladder. Not everybody who resides here is retired. If we want more employees, we’ve got to provide more affordable housing.”

“Work force housing is certainly a component,” said Sam Perlman, economic development manager of the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC). “It’s something we have been working on for many years at the DCEDC…We have been supportive of a variety of different efforts. We are talking with a couple of different municipalities about some work force housing projects. Nothing that’s firm yet.”

But Perlman points out that there is a larger employment problem at hand.

“The lack of workers is not exclusive to the tourism industry. It’s across all industries. It’s not just in Door County,” he said. “I sit on the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, so I’m hearing about it from the 11 counties that organization represents. The conundrum is, if that seems to be so true, why do we have any unemployment at all? That is a very frustrating oxymoron.”

“It’s becoming a matter of economic necessity to do something about this,” said Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board. “If we don’t have the workers, the work will go away.”

He said an employee shortage is being felt throughout the region and country, noting he had just visited the website and found there are 11,750 job orders for northeastern Wisconsin.

“A job order can be more than one position, but there are almost 12,000 job orders right now for the northeast quadrant of the state,” he said. “That’s been steadily climbing since mid-April, so the economy’s expanding.”

But the work force is shrinking, he said, referring to a recent study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that between 2007 and the end of 2013, the United States work force lost 12 million workers.

“And the three biggest reasons are retirement of Baby Boomers, people delaying entry into the work force by going back to school, and, with an older work force, more people qualifying for disability as their health declines,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing, and we’re seeing it all across the country. We’re certainly seeing it in northeastern Wisconsin.”

Seasonal employment has its own challenges, Golembeski said.

“One of the problems we’ve had for a couple of years, which I think is being felt even more intensely because of the lower numbers, our young people are going to soccer camp, band camp, tennis camp, baseball camp. Fewer kids are available for summer work because they’re doing all this other stuff. There is such pressure to excel at those kinds of things. What we’re seeing now is kids graduating out of college who have never held a job because they have been so active in summer activities that they haven’t had to do that.”

Some have decided that the young people of today do not have the work ethic of generations past. Golembeski suggests that anyone who believes that should “go to YouTube and type in the words ‘The World of the Teenager,’ which is a documentary that Frank McGee of NBC News did back in 1966 on the Baby Boomers when they were kids.

“It’s an age-old story,” Golembeski said. “The so-called Millennial Generation is very different from us Baby Boomers, and they have different expectations going to work. I would not agree that they are lazier or anything. They are just different than we were, just as we were different from our parents’ generation. They are very pre-occupied with other stuff.”