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Help Wanted

Columnist: Bob Andrews
October, 2017 Issue
Columnist

Bob Andrews
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Help wanted. Now hiring for all positions. Help needed. Apply within. Applications accepted. Yikes!

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a crisis of insufficient workers to fill jobs in the North Bay. Unemployment is at a historic low. Businesses need workers and can’t seem to find them. There are “help wanted” signs on businesses all over the place.

More than a year ago, I noticed an unusual sign on the door of a Japanese restaurant. The sign noted that the restaurant was temporarily closed for lunch due to a lack of employees. The restaurant is still closed for lunch. In May, my favorite Chinese restaurant closed completely, in part because of insufficient staff. In fact, there has been a steady stream of restaurant closures in Sonoma County, even as there has been a steady stream of new restaurant openings.

I surveyed all businesses in one shopping center by going door-to-door, asking if they were currently looking to hire new employees. The answer was easy for quite a few businesses because they already had “Help Wanted” signs posted in their windows. It was a bit more complicated for several other businesses such as the small laundry/dry cleaning store where a nice woman told me (in heavily-accented English) that she and her husband were the only employees and couldn’t afford to hire anyone else. At an exercise gym, an employee mentioned the gym was in need of another personal trainer, but hadn’t yet put up a sign. At an investment advisory/stock brokerage firm, an employee said, “Yes, we need to hire someone, but we can’t afford to pay what they want.”

I got interesting reactions at two restaurants, one with Chinese cuisine and one with Mexican cuisine. At each location I said I was writing an article about employment opportunities and wondered whether they were looking to hire. The reactions I got made me wonder if the employees thought I was from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and would be asking for Social Security cards. Employees appeared truly alarmed that I was asking anything about employment. I wondered whether they thought I was asking, personally, if they would hire me. At both places they said “no” to my question, but I doubted they understood exactly what I was asking.

I completed my ambulatory survey, with the expected result: With very few exceptions, every business was looking to hire. Later, I spoke to the chef/owner of a popular breakfast/lunch diner. He confirmed how difficult it is to hire qualified staff, saying that he had worked 47 days straight while looking for a new line cook.

“I can afford to wait for exactly the right person,” he said, “And I pay higher wages than some high-end restaurants. But I must say that the attitude of some new employees is mystifying. They might come to work for a couple of days and then not show up again, with not even a telephone call to us.”

I see a perfect storm brewing in Sonoma County—and perhaps in Marin and Napa Counties as well—over lack of employees to run businesses. This isn’t a technical discussion of unemployment rates, the long-term unemployed versus the short-term unemployed, the plight of people who have stopped looking for work or the effect of unemployment benefits.

Instead, I see a confluence of less-technical factors at work. First, there is the well-documented shortage of affordable housing. Second, building regulations, environmental reviews and government-imposed development fees ensure that not enough affordable housing will appear on the horizon. Third, traffic seems to get worse by the day, making it more and more challenging for workers to commute from somewhere else where housing is affordable. In this regard, I don’t expect lower-paid workers to use the SMART train to commute from Novato or San Rafael to Sonoma County, or vice-versa. And train service to Cloverdale is a distant dream.

Fourth, the burgeoning hospitality industry will demand so many new workers that shortages may be permanent. Note how many wineries (new and old) would like to host 25 weddings each year. Note the arrival and/or expansion of craft breweries and distilleries. Note who is planning to build new hotels.

And finally, note the built-in competition for workers between vineyard owners and growers in the pot—oops, marijuana, oops, cannabis—industry. Sonoma County seems determined to be the center for cannabis in California. Government officials covet new sources of tax revenue. The demand for commercial buildings for cannabis production has already severely disrupted the real estate market. Now the question is: How many workers—including foreign “guest visa” workers—will prefer the higher wages paid by the cannabis industry to the pay (and often physically harder work) of picking grapes? Can a grape-grower end up with fruit rotting in the fields due to lack of pickers? Yes.

Solution? Maybe our elected officials should mandate a minimum wage of $50 an hour. What could go wrong?

 

A native of Santa Rosa, Bob Andrews is a former pension trust officer at Exchange Bank and was a long-time co-owner of a retirement plan administration firm. He’s married with two children and three grandchildren and loves everything to do with wine. Contact him at bandrews@northbaybiz.com.



 

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