Labor woes continue for local employers

Beneath the good news, about low unemployment in Maine and nationally as our economy rebounds, lie the hidden data.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 62.9 percent of workforce-eligible Americans are actively engaged in employment, roughly 153 million people, while approximately 94 million eligible employees are not working.

Some are retirees (10,000 baby boomers retire every day). Some are disabled. Other eligible workers have elected to receive government benefits rather than work. A large percentage has decided to not work at all.

Students have become a larger portion of the latter category, as their labor participation rate has dropped 50 percent over the past 10 years. In a seasonal or retail-based economy such as Hancock County’s, these youth employment decisions are part of a sweeping crisis for employers who formerly depended on their participation. Labor laws have not helped.

Today, virtually every private employer locally is looking for workers. Seasonal employers facing another stressful season of reduced workforce have scaled back business hours and reduced service levels. Staffing concerns amp up.

This is not a recent development. Employment issues have been increasing in seasonal markets for years. Three factors have contributed to this employment crisis: wages, housing and cultural norms. Many employers have found it difficult to keep up with these shifting sands.

Large summer employers in Bar Harbor have started to aggressively secure housing so seasonal staff can safely rest at night. This strategy might be a model for other employers to pool their resources to pursue similar housing offerings. Employees interested in working in the vibrant hospitality industry could then relocate to the area for the season assured of accommodations.

Reliance on seasonal workers from the Caribbean and Europe provides only a short-term solution to a cultural shift on who works, and how they are trained and compensated. For decades, life lessons learned by students engaged in summer employment have been a hallmark of American growth. That this large labor pool remains on the sidelines does not bode well, either for employers or the earning power of young people facing expensive college degrees.

Further, who is addressing the impending shortages in the health care profession as our experienced nursing population retires? Who will step up to take care of our rapidly aging population?

Affordable employee housing, increased compensation and better training are three of the legs. The fourth is an overdue epiphany on the part of parents, educators and our young citizens that the life lessons of employment — not to mention the income — are equal in value to a college degree. Until there is sea change, we will be forced to live with more automation, and watch while our favorite places limit hours, limit staffing or close.

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