In a challenging hiring climate, experts outlined a range of initiatives aimed at getting a reliable pool of seasonal workers at the April 24 Portland Press Herald Business Breakfast Forum.
Maine’s historically low 3.4 percent unemployment rate has sent its booming hospitality and tourism economy scrambling to find enough seasonal workers. The problem is especially acute in southern and coastal Maine but a worker is hitting businesses across the board, including construction, landscaping and retail. To address the issue local and state groups are trying to recruit older workers, create transportation networks between jobs and employees, strengthen a foreign worker visa program and professionalize jobs in the hospitality industry.
Industry insiders Laura Dolce, director of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce, Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine and Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit shared their insights.
Here are some takeaways:
- Maine’s aging population presents serious challenges to workforce development, but also opportunities. A job fair specifically for retirees last year attracted more than 100 people and dozens were hired to critical positions at local resorts, Dolce said. This year, the chamber had to turn away some businesses because too many signed up for the same job fair. Older workers bring decades of work experience, skills and work ethic to the job, she said. It also helps to have a local workforce that can fill gaps for businesses that stay busy long after high school and college students return to their studies.
- Some seasonal businesses can do more to professionalize their workforce and encourage employees to come back year after year. Dolce said some of her members help seasonal employees get off-season jobs to show appreciation for their work and to convince them to come back. Cavaretta and Dugal said the hospitality industry wants to emphasize year-round career opportunities available to seasonal workers if they commit to the industry.
The H-2B temporary foreign worker visa program needs reforms to be more predictable and useful for businesses, Dugal said. Maine employers try to hire as many as 2,200 foreign workers a year to fill critical jobs, but complications with the program sprout annually and demand for visa workers outpaces the 66,000 visas available. To stay useful, the federal government has to raise the number of available visas and give the program consistent and reliable rules, Dugal said.
- Pairing available workers with jobs continues to be a challenge in Maine. Many of the state’s coastal businesses are at least an hour away from pools of likely seasonal workers in areas of comparatively high unemployment. Expensive housing costs in coastal communities create additional barriers for employees working in low-wage service positions. Dugal said companies on the coast have bought up housing units despite the high cost so their workers have a place to live.
- York County businesses are trying to set up a transit program for workers in Sanford and towns around it, but state law does not allow transit companies to serve workforce development, Cavaretta said. Dolce emphasized that point, saying that businesses in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport even have trouble getting workers from nearby Biddeford because there is no reliable transit.