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Hiring Workers Is a Struggle

  • James Gordon, co-owner of Upper Valley Produce in Wilder, Vt., is having to help unload and load trucks on June 8, 2018, because he can't get warehouse help. He has eight driver and warehouse openings currently he's looking to fill. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As is the case with many Upper Valley businesses, retail stores located in the Upper Valley Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 7, 2018, are searching for employees. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As is the case with many Upper Valley businesses, retail stores located in the Upper Valley Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 7, 2018, are searching for employees. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As is the case with many Upper Valley businesses, retail stores located in the Upper Valley Plaza in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 7, 2018, are searching for employees. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, June 09, 2018

West Lebanon — Upper Valley Produce co-owner James Gordon is having to fill-in on the loading dock. Lake Morey Resort owner Mark Avery has had to dive into the “dish pit” in the kitchen and wash dishes.

FujiFilm introduced higher-paid weekend work shifts to entice students, retirees and stay-at-home spouses out of the house and onto the shop floor.

FitKids Childcare at the River Valley Club is offering $500 signing bonuses for new employees and an appointment for a massage at the club spa will take a week because there are not enough massage therapists to go around.

And if you’re planning major home renovation projects or even want to built a home — well, maybe next year. There are not enough carpenters, dry board installers or painters in the area to do the work.

This is what 2.2 percent unemployment looks like for businesses in the Upper Valley.

A workforce labor shortage is forcing employers to go to unusual lengths to make up for the absence of workers. This, in some cases, is leading to foregone revenue and sales, as not enough people can be found to fill open positions to help meet the demand for goods and services.

A decade after the Great Recession left nearly one out every 10 people in the U.S. without a job, there are now more jobs available in the U.S. than there are people unemployed, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Labor. And the imbalance is particularly dire in the Upper Valley, businesses report, where even during economic downturns unemployment historically has run low.

“We’re feeling it,” said James Gordon of Upper Valley Produce, which supplies fresh produce, meats and poultry to restaurants and retailers, about the difficulty in hiring. Gordon said he has eight positions open for warehouse workers and drivers and has been spending $300 per week on the online job site Indeed to advertise for workers, but he’s unable to get enough responses.

Gordon said he’s currently paying overtime to some of his 70 employees to make up for the lack of available workers, but even that is not enough.

“Today I was out unloading a truck,” he said. “Not that it’s beneath me, but there are better things I could be doing with my time.”

Just how acute the need is for workers can be seen along the commercial Route 12A corridor in West Lebanon, where at least 31 “We’re Hiring!” signs are posted within a mile stretch, including nearly every store in the Upper Valley Shopping Plaza.

As of Friday, the job search website Indeed listed 646 jobs open within a 25-mile radius of West Lebanon that have been posted within in the past 15 days.

The workforce labor shortage, perennially an issue in the Upper Valley, has worsened as the economy has gradually improved over the past decade since the Great Recession. The tax cuts enacted by the Republican-led Congress have boosted consumer spending, even as wage growth has lagged behind the increase in corporate profits and overall rise in market indices.

“Last summer was the most difficult in my 18 years,” said Mark Avery, whose family owns the 125-room Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee. “We had only one or two dishwashers, so my wife, Lisa, and I were dishwashers. We were short three chefs; the others were working 70-plus hours a week. You worry the stress is just going to make them take off.

“I vowed that would never happen again,” Avery added.

In order to help attract staff for the peak of vacation season, when employment at the resort increases to 100 in the summer from a core winter staff of 30, this year the Avery family took a house it owned adjacent to the resort and turned it into employee housing.

“We hadn’t done that in 10 years,” Mark Avery explained.

And Avery’s sister, Jennifer, joined the business to develop a human resources program focusing on employment recruitment and retention.

The resort also brought in six chefs from out of state and doubled to four from two the number of foreign workers admitted through J-1 visitor exchange visas. Avery said the family even reached out to hire chefs from Puerto Rico, figuring there would be people there in need of work as a result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, although those efforts didn’t yield any candidates.

“Through a lot of work, we have a team in place this summer,” Avery said.

On Route 120 outside of Hanover, general contractor Trumbull-Nelson has erected large signs on an antique flatbed truck advertising for construction superintendents, foremen, carpenters and painters.

“Our industry is graying,” Trumbull-Nelson President Larry Ufford said about the age of people working in the building industry. “The average age 10 years ago was 55 and those people haven’t gotten any younger.” And younger skilled builders are not filling in behind them.

The difficulty in finding workers means the firm can’t be assured it can always staff the jobs. “We’re upfront that (clients) are going to have to wait,” Ufford said. “There is no availability.”

Seasonally adjusted unemployment stood at 2.6 percent in New Hampshire and 2.8 percent in Vermont as of April, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But within what is known as the Lebanon NH-VT Micropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses 25 contiguous towns and represents a significant geographic portion of Grafton, Windsor, Sullivan and Orange counties, the rate is even lower: 2.2 percent.

To be sure, many if not most of the advertised job openings in the Upper Valley are for unskilled, entry-level positions that pay at the lower end of the wage scale. Still, the majority of advertised jobs are paying slightly above Vermont’s $10.50 per hour minimum wage and several dollars per hour above New Hampshire’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage.

(The Vermont House and Senate Each passed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage in the state to $15 an hour by 2024, but it was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott in May.)

“If you put an ad in the newspaper for anything less than $12 (an hour), you will not get an answer,” said Joe Asch, owner of River Valley Club and FitKids Childcare. “Just nobody’s interested.”

Asch said FitKids is in need of at least four child care workers and the club needs at least five additional personal trainers, three workers in housekeeping and “several” massage therapists and hairstylists, but “we can’t find them.”

At the health club, Asch said he’s having to pay more overtime to cover for the shortage of workers, while at FitKids the managers are “having to work with kids directly” in order to meet the state’s provider-to-child ratios. Finding child care workers is a challenge because of education requirements, which eliminates many older workers returning to the labor force because they are not properly certified.

“A 50-year-old woman comes whose kids are grown up, and we tell them, ‘You have to go back to school and get the credits’ to work in child care, and they say, ‘Hey, I’ve raised kids.’ ”

Asch said the additional workers are needed because of rising enrollment at both the club and childcare center as a result of an improving economy.

“For the past 10 years it’s been up and up,” he said. “Employment is stable and growing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Hypertherm. Every time you create a new job, there’s a multiplier effect.”

The improving economy has meant more orders for the industrial inkjet print heads manufactured by FujiFilm Dimatix, which are used to print everything from patterns on ties to designs on tiles and images on billboards.

But the demand for more print heads also means the manufacturer needs more workers to staff three shifts over 24-hours.

With an unemployment rate at below 2 percent, FujiFilm has pretty much tapped out the traditionally available workforce in the Upper Valley.

So, in order to reach potential workers who previously would not have thought about working at the company, FujiFilm has initiated new 10- to 12-hour shifts on the weekend, which pulls in workers who are not available at other times during the week.

Jeff Horten, vice president of operations at FujiFilm, said the goal of introducing the extended weekend shift schedules — which pay “well above minimum wage,” although he wouldn’t specify how much — has been to appeal to retirees, spouses who need to stay at home during the week, and college-aged students who are in school during the week.

So far, the strategy appears to have helped FujiFilm find new employees at a time when traditional avenues of recruitment have been challenging.

The program has led to the hiring of an additional 40 to 50 employees and, after some initial glitches that required refining the messaging to reach the target market, “we feel we’ve hit a stable point and are now assessing our demand” and weighing a push to double that number, Horten said.

In fact, coming up with the right messaging campaign, especially in a digital era when people learn and apply for jobs online, is critical, emphasized Gary Thulander, general manager of the Woodstock Inn.

The luxury Woodstock hotel and conference center, which he said is in its fifth consecutive record year in revenues and profits, is entering its peak summer season when it transitions to a high of 340 employees from a low of 250 employees. He said the Woodstock Inn is currently about “20 to 25” short in the number of workers it will need this summer.

To attract potential hires, the hotel for the first time designed a marketing campaign specifically aimed at recruitment, and last week began posting employee video testimonials under the “employment” section of the company’s website.

In the first one, “Drew” from the grounds crew is seen climbing into the cab of a Kabota tractor and mowing the grounds on a zero-turn lawn mower against the backdrop of the hotel’s verdant landscaping while a melody plays in the background.

“As cheesy as this sounds,” he says, “with as many employees as we have, I still feel like a family. When I walk in here, everybody says hi (and) smiles (at) you.” (Cut to smiling bartender waving.)

Thulander said the hotel has been working on producing the employee videos over the past four weeks and eventually will roll out about eight of them on the website.

“It’s more compelling than putting an ad in the newspaper,” he said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.