BELFAST — The nationwide shortage of workers in many business sectors has come home to roost in Waldo County, with a wide variety of employers having difficulty hiring.

One of the affected industries locally is trucking. As many truck drivers retire in Maine, finding new drivers to fill the ever-widening workforce gap has become a real challenge. Maine is particularly hurt by this trend, with 37% of the trucking industry workforce being 60 or older.

“It’s not just drivers,” said Brian Parke, chief executive officer of Maine Motor Transport Association. “It is technicians as well.”

The industry anticipates needing thousands of drivers, technicians and other support personnel in the next 10 years. “One thing many people don’t realize is that a driver position is a portable, in-demand career,” he said. “If they have their CDL, it’s their meal ticket wherever they decide to go.”

Compensation for drivers, Parke said, depends on the type of driving job, with long-haul positions paying better than local jobs. A driver starting out, on average, can expect to be paid around $40,000 a year, while experienced drivers can earn over $85,000 a year, with a good benefits package.

To address the shortage of workers, Parke’s association has launched a campaign aimed at attracting younger drivers, placing its message on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

The “Go. Your Way” (goyourwaymaine.com) digital campaign seeks to bring awareness of the many different occupations in the trucking business and to dispel preconceived notions people may have. Besides driving, there are behind-the-scenes roles, including loading and unloading trucks, planning routes, keeping the vehicles running and selling services, Parke said. “The idea is to give folks an inside look into the industry to generate curiosity while showing them that trucking is a viable and exciting career.

“Our industry never stopped during the pandemic,” he said, with many stores scrambling to keep shelves filled and emergency medical supplies in stock. It was “an opportunity, unlike any other … for the trucking industry to show the value of its careers,”

Parke said there is not one easy answer to fix the problem. Basically, the state of Maine needs more younger drivers and technicians to fill these slots. “The main takeaway I would like people to know about is there are all kinds of different driver positions out there,” he said.

Local hiring gaps

Worker shortages are not limited to the trucking industry. Many local businesses also spoke about how hard it is to find workers for available jobs. Jim Butler, human resources director at Mathews Brothers in Belfast, said in the five years he has been with the company, it has been hiring constantly. Butler said there are several reasons why there are not enough people to fill available openings. He added that it may be a combination of things that has led Mathews Brothers to be continually looking for employees.

Right now the county is still experiencing “a COVID hangover,” Butler said, adding that the area’s small rural population exacerbates the shortage. The company has not been able to do job fairs in over a year, he said, and instead relies now on advertising spots on TV and radio, along with its familiar “We’re Hiring” road sign on Route 1. Matthews Brothers has been “very healthy and growing,” while the labor pool has not kept pace.

Seasonal needs

Steve Ryan, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, said the county’s labor shortage is significant and added that restaurants are the first type of business to come to his mind. Because of the pandemic, many restaurants were forced to reduce staff, he said. Now, as the state is rushing for an influx of summer visitors, they are trying to ramp up their staff.

Not all employees have come back, he said. A significant number of workers have chosen to change careers. Ryan said he knows of more than two dozen people who have started new businesses recently, looking to pursue their dreams. “It takes a lot of guts,” he said, with the pandemic still not over.

Ryan said he has seen new business start-ups in areas such as professional services, health care and graphic design. Some employees are not returning, he said, because additional unemployment benefits offer close to or more than their typical wage.

An example of this was offered by Elizabeth Andrew-Lane, who owns Bayside Store in Northport. She said she was flabbergasted when someone asked if she was hiring, then refused the position, saying they only wanted her to sign their unemployment form so they could receive benefits.

“I told them absolutely we are hiring, and asked what can you do or what hours can you commit to?” she said. They responded with “Nothing really — I just want you to sign my card.”

Many workers have families or are paying off college debt, Ryan said, and need to work for a better wage than what is offered. With the current minimum wage, restaurant owners are having trouble finding people to work. As an example, Ryan mentioned Ridgetop Restaurant in Knox, whose owner put the restaurant up for sale, saying she could not find any people to hire.

On the flip side, Ryan said, there are also many people who have been unsuccessful in their job search. For 13 weeks in a row, he said, the most-clicked link on the chamber’s website has been the job board page, which suggests many people are looking for a job.