Year Of The Hire? Employers Hopeful, But Labor & Housing Shortage Bring Challenges

The signs are everywhere you go: “Help Wanted.” 

No industry has been spared from the post-pandemic labor shortage and employers have had to get creative to attract candidates to fill year-round and seasonal positions.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there are over 85,000 workers not participating in the labor market compared to pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, employers’ need for workers has continued to increase, with unfilled job postings up 20 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels and approximately 200,000 open jobs available across the Commonwealth.

This summer has added challenges to employers, not only with seasonal but year round hiring of staff,” confirms Marty Bruemmel, President/CEO of the Greater Hyannis Chamber of Commerce. “Besides finding employees, housing has become a critical element.

The cost of housing (if you can find housing) alone has just added another curveball to the post pandemic world.”

Some good news for the Cape is the announced increase in H-2B visas to 35,000, added Bruemmel. “The added benefit of this is having those returning workers coming back with prior experience, thus reducing the time needed to train. But the key component to this is housing.”

The J-1 cultural exchange program, for example, brings students from abroad to work temporarily in the U.S., was severely curtailed during the pandemic.

“We are excited to announce a return of J-1program participant applications matching pre-pandemic numbers,” said Meave Treacy, Work & Travel USA Regional Manager at InterExchange. “These past two summers were trying for host employers looking to hire for available positions that Americans were unable to fill. The participants’ imminent arrival to the area and their enthusiasm for the program this year is palpable and reflected in the number of exchange visitors participating this summer season.”

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce’s Noelle Pina echoes Bruemmel’s concerns about the lack of housing impacting hiring.

“We’ve heard that as much as 20 percent of the foreign workforce don’t stay for the season as they can’t find a place to stay,” said Pina, who serves as Chief of Staff to chamber CEO Paul Niedzwiecki. “We strongly encourage our residents on Cape Cod who have room to consider telling their favorite restaurant or hotelier that they have an extra room to rent. That is a great way to help our economy and business community.”

 The lack of early childhood education and childcare is another big reason why many who can work don’t, Pina adds.  “Any investments made at the town level to fund early childhood education in direct payments to licensed providers or to take a larger leap and create their own programs will make a big difference in this tight labor market.”

 Cape Cod Healthcare, the Cape’s largest employer with 4,900 employees, isn’t too far off from its pre-pandemic level (5,300) of employment, but needs still exist. Incentives and cooperative relationships with educational institutions are among the strategies CCHC is using to attract employees. Like many seasonal businesses, Cape Cod Healthcare also needs more staff to cover the medical needs created during summer, with the onslaught of visitors.

“We have 450 positions open currently, across the board,” said Michelle Skarbek, Vice President of Human Resources. “There was an existing nursing shortage prior to COVID which has been exacerbated due to the pandemic and we also had some nurses who retired during the pandemic or moved on to pursue other opportunities.”

Cape Cod Healthcare includes hospitals in Hyannis and Falmouth, JML, Heritage at Falmouth, Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod, Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod and Lab Services. The company has had a relationship for years with agencies who recruit “traveling nurses,” but the lack of housing and housing costs continues to be a barrier for those nurses.

Incentives in place include an RN residency program through Cape Cod Community College, a phlebotomy program between the hospital workers’ union and Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical High School. All CCHC employees are eligible to receive up to $3,000 for referring a successful hire for priority positions, including RNs and LPNs. Cape Cod Healthcare also offers flexible working schedules, depending on the department, and a weekend program for RNs, where a nurse signs on to work 24 hours on the weekend, but is paid for 36 hours with full benefits.

The company posts job openings on Indeed, LinkedIn and Glassdoor and will be attending in-person job fairs again this year. Sign-on bonuses are another strategy.

“We offer outstanding benefits packages, flexible schedules and continue to enhance our offerings while adjusting to this new labor market,” says Skarbek.

Workforce shortage issues are unfortunately nothing new to human services providers, such as Road to Responsibility of Marshfield, which offers residential, work/employment, day habilitation and other day supports to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout southern Massachusetts.

“The primary issue is money.  Companies like Road To Responsibility can’t compete in this market without significant increases to the rates the state uses to purchase services,” says Christopher White, CEO.  “Using one-time monies (primarily a PPP loan) we have increased our starting pay to $17 an hour and have added recruitment and retention bonuses of $2,500.  However, our state contracts will only support an entry level wage from $15 to $16.79 an hour.  While our efforts have helped to stabilize us, they haven’t significantly decreased the number of vacancies (we still have more than 27 percent  of our positions vacant). This is happening across the field (children, mental health, developmental disabilities and elder services).”

The labor shortage has created opportunities for workers over 50 and retirees, an often overlooked group of workers.

“Modern medicine and more mature people taking extra loving care of themselves, has allowed many, who are physically and mentally fit, to work way beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 years old,” says author and consultant Martha Fields (“The Okinawa in Me: Finally Finding My IKIGAI”). “This is great news as there are seasoned individuals who are still ready, willing, and able to work for you. There is a caveat. Many may not want the grind of a full-time job, but they may want to stay connected to the world of work as a 1099 consultant , seasonal worker, or part of a temporary pool that can be used to supplement your staffing as needed and allow them to still enjoy their retirement.”

Fields says some employers have become extremely creative by offering retirees an option to become part of an internal temporary worker pool. Individuals opting for that opportunity can  be called in to do work on a project, per diem, or monthly retainer basis. 

“Some organizations employing this tactic have discovered that some mature retirees have found that after a year or two of obtaining their retirement goals of playing golf daily, traveling to all of their dream vacation spots, they realize that they still don’t want full-time employment,” she adds. “Some, however, are craving some job-related mental stimulation and social interaction and are open to considering a consulting, part-time, or temporary gig. 

Fields suggests businesses find retirees who may want to work through outreach recruitment efforts at Senior Citizen Centers, assisted-living and retirement homes, and other social, civic, and religious organizations in communities that are frequented by mature individuals.

Another source for small businesses is the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, which provides free, confidential, one-to-one business assistance and free or low-cost educational training programs to prospective and existing small businesses throughout the Commonwealth. Areas of assistance include: business plan development, preventure feasibility, cash flow analysis, personnel and organizational issues, conventional and non-conventional financing, marketing, international trade, SBIR and government procurement.

While echoing others’ lament about the regional housing shortage, MSBDC Senior Business Advisor and Regional Coordinator Clifford Robbins has some advice for employers. 

“My advice to many of my clients is to seek employees from off Cape: New Bedford and Plymouth in particular,” Robbins suggests. “It’s only an hour (or less) away. But even then it’s a struggle.  I have one client who closed his store because his $15/hour employees wouldn’t return [even] for $20/hour.  So, I preach paying close attention to retention, lest they get into an even worse problem of not being able to meet the current customer’s needs.”