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Aviation Blog

'We need more people': Seacoast employers labor at finding workers, here's why. –


PORTSMOUTH — Go just about anywhere in the Seacoast, and you’ll see the signs of how hard it is to hire people these days. Not metaphorical signs. Literally, there are signs everywhere.
“We’re hiring” implores a sign for Harmony Homes along Route 4 in Durham. A big banner across the length of a school bus parked on Route 1 in York, Maine, seeks drivers. The LED sign along Bartlett Street in Portsmouth for Ricci Lumber trumpets the need for full-time yard workers. A sign at the New Hampshire State Liquor store at the Portsmouth traffic circle says, “We’re hiring.”  A “We’re hiring” placard greets shoppers inside the Walmart in Newington, a “Now hiring great people” placard for Subway inside the Walmart is just a few feet away. “We’re hiring” signs greet drivers along Route 9 in front of jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick, Maine.
That’s a very small sampling of the signs that are out there as employers of every kind are looking for workers: From senior care to toddler care, from restaurants to landscapers, from YMCAs to health clubs, manufacturing to retail, large to small — the need for workers in the region is acute.
“The one thing that crosses all sectors is the workforce. We need people to get out to work,” said Ben VanCamp, president and chief collaborator of the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth. “Get out there if you’re retired. Get out there if you’re young. If you’re leaving the stay-at-home parent role, get out there. The salaries are good, the benefits are good. There is really a lot going on right now, we just need more people.”
Employers and policy makers are wrestling with questions about the labor shortage this Labor Day: Is it a problem of too many jobs for too few people? Or is it a case of too many people not wanting to work for the jobs that are available? Or is it a lingering fear from the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistence of virus variants that’s keeping people from getting out there again?
Statistically speaking, New Hampshire is at full employment right now with unemployment at 2.9% in August, better by 1.5 points than the national average. The Federal Reserve considers a base unemployment rate of 5 to 5.2% as “full employment” in the economy. A year ago it was 8.1%. Unemployment here reached a high water mark of 16% in April 2020 in the throes of the pandemic shutdowns.
Then why are so many employers looking for employees? Richard Lavers, assistant commissioner at N.H. Employment Security, draws a more nuanced picture of the situation. While it might appear there are too many jobs for too few people, he said there is a natural churn: People who aren’t employed but looking for new opportunities within their sector (healthcare, hospitality, etc.); people who aren’t working because they’re looking outside their sector in a new sector of employment; and people who aren’t employed as they’ve gone back to school for more education or more training to become more employable for a particular sector.
“We know that employers are really out there aggressively looking for workforce,” he said.
The $600 a week federal stipend (paid on top of normal unemployment benefits) then the $300 a week federal stipend (that ended in mid-June) gave people the financial flexibility to step out of the workforce and weigh their options, according to Lavers.
“That really put pressure on private sector employers. For the first time, they were competing with the unemployment program,” Lavers said. “It’s not a place the unemployment program is comfortable being. Now we’re back to where we’re intended to be: More of a financial bridge for people between jobs,”
How hard has it been for employers? Anecdotally, the answers are as numerous as the Help Wanted signs. Restaurants, especially, bear the brunt of the publicity because they directly serve a public eager to get out after extended pandemic lockdowns.
The Goldenrod, a popular summer destination in York Beach, Maine, could not open for breakfast this summer season because it didn’t have enough staff to handle the morning crowd.
Nearby, on Route 1 in York, Louie’s Lunchbox didn’t open at all this summer and, in fact, has closed for good. “We don’t have the manpower to do it … I mean, you can try to hire people, but you can’t hire anybody, so why fight that?” said owner Mark Graziano.
‘A sad day’: Lunchbox Louie’s in York won’t reopen, as pandemic claims another business
The workforce issue isn’t a new one. It pre-dated COVID-19. The pandemic brought the issue of employment and the economy into crisis: How were businesses and policy makers going to handle the workforce when, in large numbers, they couldn’t work because of the months-long lockdown? They were laid off, furloughed, worked fewer hours, and worked from home.
The state of the economy and jobs has been a trend line for years as part of polling done by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Prior to the pandemic, the economy and jobs traded the top issue distinction in the state with the opioid crisis. The pandemic supplanted them. Now in recovery, the economy and jobs is back on top as the No. 1 issue in the state, per the survey center’s polling.
Portsmouth restaurateur Jay McSharry said restaurants that stayed open during the pandemic have fared better than restaurants that were closed. Among his restaurants, Moxy, Franklin Oyster House and Jumpin’ Jays Fish Cafe are open five days a week now. Before the pandemic, they were open seven days. But earlier this week, he announced his restaurant Dos Amigos would close because after its summer help left, there were not enough employees to run the restaurant.
“People unfortunately changed professions on us,” McSharry said. It’s a factor that affected restaurants and other businesses as well. The pandemic shifted priorities, forced either by economic and health factors.
He believes that people are limiting what he calls the “cross pollination” of activities to limit their exposure to other people. Whereas someone was going to school and working part-time at a restaurant, according to McSharry, they cut out the restaurant work to focus solely on school in order to minimize exposure to the contagious virus.
And there is also the social aspect of working in a restaurant, the camaraderie of co-workers spending time together. That’s diminished. “When everybody wears a mask, the social aspect was taken out. It wasn’t as much fun,” he said.
His restaurants — which also includes Vida Cantina, Street, Luigi’s West End Pizzeria, and White Heron Tea — have had a good summer. “We have a good core of staff at all the places,” he said.
But keeping them staffed at the hours they’re open is a constant effort. “We work at it every day,” said McSharry, noting the hiring notices that are placed on Indeed and other recruiting sites as well as social media. “It’s a constant push.”
Municipalities aren’t immune from the shortage.
“Finding qualified individuals for municipal vacancies has been a real challenge at all levels of the organization,” said Todd Selig, the Durham town administrator. “COVID-19 seems to have exacerbated an already tight labor market in the municipal sector.”
According to Selig, the town has had problems filling positions at its Department of Public Works, firefighter and police vacancies, and minute takers for public board meetings.
‘We’ve tried everything’: Maine businesses stressed by labor shortage
He called the economics of the pandemic “complex,” noting, “On the one hand, we want to ensure that people are safe, take appropriate COVID-19 precautions, have food to eat, and a safe place to sleep. On the other hand, if there are not economic consequences for not working, many people will simply choose not to work – and I think that’s some of what we’re seeing at this time.”
Like school districts everywhere, the Oyster River Cooperative School District is desperately seeking bus drivers. Selig, in one of his recent weekly emailed updates to residents, said the district was looking for 10 drivers. Without them, he said, “we are unable to provide bus transportation to (high school and middle school) athletics teams and may even need to adjust school day schedules in order to have enough time for all bus runs.”
Bus drivers are also needed at COAST. As older bus drivers are retiring, the government-funded bus service can’t find replacements. That, according to director of operations Michael Williams, has forced the scaling back of routes that serve Dover, Portsmouth/Newington, Rochester and Somersworth.
“The sole reason COAST is suspending these services is due to the shortage of CDL drivers to operate our scheduled routes,” said Rad Nichols, COAST’s executive director.
To attract workers, employers have upped the incentives.
McSharry said he has increased pay for his back of the house employees (cooks, dishwashers) by 25%. It’s created stability, he said, but it’s also contributing to inflation — higher prices on the menu. “This has happened and will continue to happen,” he said.
At Harmony Homes By The Bay, an assisted living facility in Durham, a new building opened in August with apartments and day care specifically for employees. The move, according to owners John and Maggie Randolph, serves to not only attract workers and also address the need for affordable housing.
“You can’t attract people to live and work here if there’s no affordable housing,” John Randolph said.
Workforce and affordable housing are often seen as the two sides of the same coin when it comes to the labor picture in New Hampshire.
Affordable housing for workers: Harmony Place opening in Durham. Dover cottages are next.
“I can’t hire people to work if they can’t afford to live here,” said Mark Caswell, the head of engineering and facilities at Lonza Biologics as he talked about future growth of the plant at the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth.
Robert Boucher, CEO of WIN Waste Innovations, considered the same issue when talking about the future growth of his company, also based at Pease.  “The housing market over the last five years has been horrendous, and because of that, we’ve suffered with getting talent here,” he said.


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