Desperately seeking workers: Island's crunch felt nationally

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Help Wanted! The signs are everywhere - almost literally.

Worker shortages in the Lowcountry tourism industry, especially on Hilton Head Island, have been a clear and present danger for many summers.

The same dearth of warm bodies locally also cripples companies nationwide. U.S. employers in April posted the most job openings in the market in 16 years, as companies struggle to find qualified workers amid declining unemployment rates.

In Beaufort County in May 2017, unemployment registered a staggeringly low 3.4 percent, well below the 4.1 percent nationally, according to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce.

The surging population growth in Bluffton, lower housing costs, and emerging new retailers and restaurants have put a hurtful dent into the prospects of island businesses drawing on the labor pool of those who live on the mainland.

"We're coming into our busiest season of the year, but we cannot find sufficient numbers of qualified applicants to do the jobs that will be needed," said Faith Roppelt, general manager and partner of Main Street Cafe & Pub on the island, in a press release. "This is a very serious problem that's continuing to get worse. We have advertised. We have networked and exhausted our options; so we finally made the difficult decision to close on Sundays until further notice."

The popular eatery served its last Sunday brunch in May after being open seven days a week for 17 years.

The SERG restaurant group, which owns and manages nine restaurants on the island - Poseidon and Skull Creek Boathouse among them - and Giuseppe's Pizza & Pasta in Bluffton, also has its share of staffing challenges.

"It's been increasing the past three years specifically," said Alan Wolf, director of operations for the local company founded in 1984. "It's been getting a little bit worse each year. Our culinary workforce is the hardest to fill: line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers. It's a bigger challenge than the front of the house."

SERG employs about 350 full time employees and about 400 part-timers, but contends with understaffing of about 10 percent, or about 75 positions, Wolf said.

He doesn't foresee filling those jobs this summer, and admits there has been a "sprinkling" of days when the group's restaurants got pinched by understaffing.

"We kind of chip away at it," he said. "Overtime is an option. We make sure we take care of the guest experience with what we have."

Kroger, an anchor at Shelter Cove Towne Centre that opened in 2013, hosted a job fair in March hoping to attract at least 100 new full- and part-time workers for the summer season at its massive 88,000-square-foot store.

Baggers, cashiers, and deli and bakery department staffers are a pressing need.

Unfortunately, the supermarket giant didn't reach its hiring goal, said Felix Turner, public affairs manager of the Atlanta division, of which the local store is a part. He noted that 30 to 40 associates are still needed to complement 300 already on its payroll.

Turner acknowledged that recruiting to keep Kroger's ranks fully staffed and flexible on the island is an ongoing issue.

"It requires us to be really vigilant and to have a hiring process in place," he said. "A lot of times we'll do some additional hiring to have some flexibility."

The Sonesta Hotel on the island wants 40 more employees to join its peak summer season workforce of 300, said general manager Jay Wiendl.

But the popular beachfront resort hotel remodeled in 2013 has assuaged its labor shortage with H-2B and J-1 recruits. An H-2B visa is a temporary work visa for foreign workers with a job offer for seasonal, non-agricultural work. A J-1 visa provides opportunities for international candidates looking to travel and gain business training and work experience in the U.S.

Wiendl has about 60 nonimmigrants, some from Jamaica, on board for a nine-month work-travel engagement, and a handful of others for three months with J-1 visa status from South Africa and elsewhere. The Sonesta provides housing for its foreign help.

"We were lucky enough to benefit from receiving our H-2Bs workforce in February," he said. "I have about 18 annual J-1s now because I can't fill the positions locally... I have to be reliant on bringing in a workforce from overseas."

So how does the Lowcountry satisfy its chronic labor shortage, which needs an estimated 8,400 tourism workers to keep the industry humming to accommodate 2.6 million tourists annually?

"The Lowcountry's current workforce shortage issue is a prime example and byproduct of a thriving business community," said Bill Miles, president of the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. "It's a top priority issue for your chamber."

Affordable housing and reliable public transportation to the island are critical to the vibrancy of the Lowcountry's tourism industry.

Unless that happens, "A decrease in service is inevitable in our industry," SERG's Wolf said.

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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