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Local businesses struggle to find workers

Teen employment continues to decline; Employer: 'They want more "me" time'
By Jordan Bailey | Aug 10, 2017
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Isabella Porter, right, a Belfast High School student, works full-time as a waitress at Lobster Pound in Lincolnville. At left is Theresa Mastricolo of Camden. Because of short staff in the kitchen this year, the restaurant does not seat more customers than it can comfortably serve, even if there are tables available.

At Dairy Queen in Belfast, high school-age girls crowded behind the counter and takeout window,  filling orders on a busy Thursday afternoon. Assistant Store Manager Amber Heath said it has been hard to find enough staff in recent years, but she was fortunate to be able to build up a good crew this summer.

Not all local employers were that lucky. The Republican Journal interviewed 25 business owners and managers in Belfast, Northport and Lincolnville, from retail shops to restaurants and manufacturers, and found that most have had trouble filling positions this season. Of the 18 who tried hiring this summer, 15 say it has been difficult, and 10 say they are working with less than full staff. Some say they are working more hours themselves or that their staff is working harder and longer hours to make up for the labor shortage.

When asked if filling open positions has been difficult, Pizza Permare owner Bryant Hall said, “Oh boy it has! It is the hardest it has ever been in the eight years I’ve been hiring employees.”

For him, applications are just not coming in. The five employees he was able to get at the Northport restaurant will all be returning to school by the end of the month.

“What I’ll do after that, I honestly don’t know,” he said.

Maine Maritime Products, a seafood wholesaler in Belfast, has been operating with 30 employees when the plant would typically employ 45 in the summer. General Manager Ross Carroll, who is working 90 to 95 hours a week himself, said he and the owner decided not to open the takeout seafood restaurant Off the Hook this season because no one could be hired to run it. Despite extensive advertising and raising the pay rate, Carroll said he got only a few mediocre applications and one he did hire had to be let go because “he didn’t know what he was doing.”

The latest state figures show unemployment for Waldo County was at 3.8 percent in June, the lowest June rate since 2001. The rate typically drops further between August and October; last year it was down to 3.5 for those three months.

Fewer foreign workers

Some employers have turned to foreign workers to fill the gaps. There are 33 student workers on cultural exchange J1 visas in Waldo County this year, up from 19 last year, according to the U.S. State Department.

However, because Congress did not renew a provision that exempted H2B visas for temporary, seasonal workers from the total visa quota, the summer allotment for those visas ran out in March, leaving many seasonal businesses short-staffed. By summer, restaurants, hotels and carnivals were competing for the same local workers to fill positions.

Though there are relatively few H2B visa holders employed in Waldo County compared to other parts of the state, restaurant owners we talked to suggest the reduction of those workers in other parts of the region, particularly Bar Harbor, Camden and Rockport, drained some of the labor pool here this spring. In mid-July, the Department of Homeland Security authorized 15,000 additional visas for seasonal workers, but by then much of the damage was done.

Despite the reduction, Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast was able to secure early in the season its usual 12 cashiers on H2B visas.

“If it weren’t for them, I don’t know what I’d do,” said owner Katrina Young.

The Lobster Pound in Lincolnville has employed four H2B visa holders in seasons past, but owner Peggy Brown said she purchased the restaurant this spring and by then it was too late to apply. She shares one J1 student worker from Bulgaria with another local business. The restaurant is still short-staffed in the kitchen, so it does not seat any more than can be comfortably served so customers do not have to wait too long for their food, which often leads to lines out the door.

Poor work ethic?

The situation is exacerbated by a continued decline in the percentage of teenagers taking summer jobs. A common complaint among local business owners or managers was that young people “don’t want to work.”

“You always hear about the 'Maine work ethic,' but I don’t see it,” said Carroll at Maine Maritime Products. “My best workers are 40- to 50-year-olds. Everyone my age, you have to take them by the hand and show them how to do something six times. They want to work just enough to get by. You call them in on their days off and they won’t do it.”

He blamed it on how they are being raised, and contrasted it to his childhood working on a farm. He had staff T-shirts made up that said “Nobody cares, work harder,” which were highly popular among their restaurant clients. Work is not time to air personal problems, Carroll said, and restaurant staff waiting for their seafood deliveries don’t care about crazy excuses for why someone’s late.

He did note that some of the work, shucking clams for instance, is piece-rate, and the applicants for those positions are generally people who lack the skills to work anywhere else.

When asked if young workers were unreliable, Sue Coolbeth, owner of Belfast vegan hotspot Sue Cakes, responded “Unfortunately, yes, absolutely. One was constantly asking for more pay and more time off, (though that worker) only worked 25 to 30 hours a week.” She said she needed five workers and was only able to hire two, leading to her having to cut back open hours and decline events.

Among other comments from employers who asked not to be named were: “They’re lazy. They take time off, sick days, they want to enjoy the summer"; “17- to 20-year-olds on staff are not working out. They won’t come in if it’s sunny"; and “(They) always have picnics, fireworks, parades, dinner with grandpa to go to; it’s a new generation, that’s all.”

Six of the 25 employers interviewed had nothing but good things to say about their young employees, and attributed that to their careful screening process. One manager called them their “most eager and reliable workers.” Dave Crabiel of Belfast hired 23 high school students this year to work at downtown candy shop "The Chocolate Drop" and two other locations. He said he had no issues with their reliability or work ethic.

Another four were hesitant to relate work ethic to age, saying it depends on the individual.

Perry’s Nut House owner George Darling, who came from a director position in a manufacturing company in Chicago, sees the problem in work ethic as afflicting Mainers in general, though he says his high school and college-age workers are the “best in the crop.”

“The problem is here in Maine people don’t want to work,” he said “especially in the trades. My son has a tiling business and goes through workers like crazy. You have to really pick and choose here in Maine.”

Brown at the Lobster Pound put a more positive spin on young workers’ changing attitudes.

“You know, they are into tiny houses,” she said, referring to a movement in downsizing for environmental and financial reasons as well as for more time and freedom. “It’s tough to find people who want to work 40 hours. They want more 'me' time.”

“Have I done that to my kids?” Brown wondered aloud. “I’ve worked hard all my life and I sometimes say to them, ‘It’s OK, you don’t need a job this summer.’”

Teens forego summer work

The portion of 16- to 19-year-olds working summer jobs has been dropping for decades and was down to 30.3 percent nationally in July of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau also reports that the percentage of teenagers participating in the labor force (those who are employed as well as those who are looking for work) has dropped from a peak of 72 percent in July 1978 to 43 percent in July 2016. In Maine, the annual teen labor force participation rate has dropped from 56.5 percent in 2000 to 47.3 in 2014, according to the Center for Workforce Research and Information.

The Bureau attributes the decline in teen employment to an increased emphasis by parents on education and educational experiences — summer school enrollment was up to 42 percent in 2016 compared to 10 percent in 1985, earlier school start dates and more strenuous coursework. Add to these the increased cost of college tuition: Money earned through summer jobs just doesn’t put much of a dent in it.

All these factors have combined to create a workers’ market. Danielle Keeter, a new hire at Sue Cakes, said she had several job offers and was able to choose work she believed in.

Maine’s minimum wage went up this year, so many employers interviewed said their starting pay was higher than last year’s by default, but four said they raised their starting pay beyond that or increased benefits specifically because of the difficulty of finding workers.

At Mathews Brothers, Human Resources Manager Jim Butler said it “hasn’t been easy,” but they filled 30 positions this season and are just now slowing down hiring. He attributed their success in hiring to staying ahead of the curve in terms of pay and benefits. The company offers a starting pay of $11 an hour and regular pay increases, and this year significantly increased an attendance bonus, through which the company rewards reliable workers.

There were a few businesses that pay minimum wage who did report easy hiring of young workers, including Perry’s Nut House and The Chocolate Drop. Though The Republican Journal survey was not scientific, one could conclude it helps if there’s candy.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Patricia Keyes | Aug 11, 2017 09:36

Kids are ready and willing to work at 10-yrs-old. They suddenly get the situation, want things, and are willing to work. By 14-yrs-old, if they haven't worked and achieved some of their small goals, they are just as happy sponging off their parents, and the damage is done. It is absurd that parents have to "ask permission" of school superintendents for their children to get a "work permit" in the summer, or during the school year for kids 12 and up. We don't have the same dynamics as people a hundred years ago. Immigrants who may keep their kids home from school to work are a different matter, a matter of not assimilating into our culture. They aren't the norm. There have been harassing movements all around the nation to kick children out of their lemonade stands, and even lawn mowing jobs, when this is the time kids need to try and to develop a joy in work, without the brutal punishment of taxation.

In many countries, I often turn my nose up at that phrase, there are no janitorial staff in public schools. The children are expected and given time daily to clean their entire school. They bring lunch to school from home, and they take out their own trash. Even here in New England, kids who are not interested in an academic track (and there's a lot of them being asked to be something they are not and never will be) used to be able to take practical courses that would allow them to function in this world; things like shop, home ec, typing, computer programming, driver's ed, book keeping, practical math, etc. Common Core doesn't address any of this, and in fact, largely refuses to offer education of a practical nature at all. There is virtually nothing offered there that one can apply to normal everyday life. It's all abstract, verbal, ideological, literary (of a very questionable nature), and depressing revisionist history full of activism rather than government studies.

Kids can sense they're not being welcomed and encouraged to join adults. They're being treated as things; things to mop, things to drain their parents' bank accounts, things that "don't do it well enough". They resent it, or they feel they cannot possibly compete with adults who have 40 yrs experience on them and don't enjoy being around adults who won't drop the competitive crushing of their young spirits just so those adults can "feel good about themselves".

The other major problem for rural kids is lack of income of their parents and the large distances between home and work opportunities. Many families who have kids can't afford more than 1 car, and parents are already at work at 5 AM, so the kids are stranded at the end of dirt roads, miles from anywhere, and they simply can't be reliable, because they don't have reliable transportation at the exact times prospective employers want them to be there. "Cash for Clunkers" wiped out the cheap used car market, and junk yard owners wonder if the days of reasonably reliable beaters are over for good. Try finding a used car that runs for less than $5K. Parents working at low paying jobs simply can't "buy Johnny a convertible." Sometimes I think places that need a large number of kids might be able to get them if they could provide a van service to pick them up. Just a thought.

Posted by: Rebekka Freeman | Aug 10, 2017 18:24

Another thought .... Most teenagers that I have talked to run into employment issues when they are told they have to be 18 years old to  operate or be near equipment, etc . Perhaps they become discouraged when they are 15, 16 or 17 and can't land a job when they are first eager.. or at least more receptive.. to the notion of finding work.

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