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Service, Please! How to Work Out a Labor Shortage

After several summers of restaurants and hotels being understaffed, Mainers answered the bell with a bevy of creative solutions.

Service, Please! How to Work Out Maine's Labor Shortage
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By Frances Killea

Having two (or three, or four) jobs is a Mainer thing, but when restaurants, shops, and hotels geared up for the summer rush the past several years, there was simply more work to be had than workers to do it. Until the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the state and national economy, Maine had an unemployment rate that couldn’t go much lower (2.8 percent, down from 8 percent a decade ago) and an aging population. The pool of available service-industry employees was shallow. In response, professional organizations, chambers of commerce, and local governments started thinking outside the box to find new ways to help Maine’s many small businesses staff up. Uncertainty over the upcoming tourist season has made that task exponentially more difficult, and employers will likely need the help more than ever.


Bring Boomers Back

Starting next year, people over the age of 65 are predicted to make up nearly a quarter of Mainers. “We’ve tapped out our younger population,” says Laura Snyder Smith, marketing and events manager at the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce. That’s why, in 2018, her group teamed up with a local senior center to hold a job fair.

“The idea was to make it really cozy and comfortable and unintimidating,” she says. Some two dozen area businesses participated the first year, and 135 seniors showed up. Local resorts put new boomer employees to work as gift-shop cashiers, gardeners, front-desk clerks, and shuttle drivers. Last year, employers from banks to bakeries to the U.S. Census Bureau used the fair to court retirees.

“We tap into their experience and their wisdom and their work ethic,” Snyder Smith says. “That’s been the key.”

The next Retired Workers Job Fair, scheduled for April 7, has been cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For updates, visit gokennebunks.com.

Go Out of State

The Maine Tourism Association, an industry group, started looking for help beyond state lines last year. Recruitment specialist Kathryn Ference, who runs the association’s Staffing Solutions program, has been traveling the country for the past year to sell workers on the idea of coming to Maine. She says there’s a large contingent of people around the country who change jobs — and often locales — with the changing of the seasons, but that Maine isn’t on many of their radars.

So Ference has been making connections with ski-resort workers as near as Vermont and as far away as California who might find desirable summer gigs in Maine. She also recently traveled to Florida to encourage golf-club employees to follow snowbirds north for at least a few months a year. Whenever she lands a new recruit, she pairs that person with one of the group’s member businesses. “It’s kind of like playing a matchmaking service,” she says.

One change would allow any business owner to build on-site living quarters, and another would amend occupancy standards to allow for the construction of off-site dormitories.

Pass a Quartering Act

The staffing shortage hurts communities all over the state, but places like Mount Desert Island, Camden, and the Kennebunks face an additional challenge: affordable housing. Not only do employers have to hustle to find workers, they also often have to find a place for those workers to live during peak season, when rental rates are through the roof.

Bar Harbor planning board chair Tom St. Germain says his town is some 350 beds short just for year-round workers, and the shortage gets incalculably worse in the summer, which is why town officials are writing new zoning regulations. One change would allow any business owner to build on-site living quarters, and another would amend occupancy standards to allow for the construction of off-site dormitories with shared kitchens and bathrooms for up to 16 employees. The town council killed similar plans last year, but officials say they’ve since addressed councilors’ concerns, and the new proposal should go to voters this spring.

Play the Long Game

On-the-job training seems like a rarity at a time when “seeking experienced [so-and-so]” dominates job boards. So industry group Hospitality Maine’s new paid apprenticeship program helps motivated newbies bridge the experience gap while helping employers identify entry-level staff with the potential to grow into leadership roles.

“We’re trying to reach out to young people who don’t have a career in mind, perhaps don’t even have college in mind,” Hospitality Maine CEO Steve Hewins says. Those accepted into the program put in 2,000 hours of work and at least 145 hours of tuition-free community-college classes in hospitality, restaurant management, and the like. Four of the first 14 participants, Hewins notes, are ex-cons.

“Once those hours are complete, that person is going to be pretty valuable,” Hewins says. “I don’t suspect employers are going to want to lose them, so the theory is that they’re really in a career pipeline.”