Worker shortage continues to plague island businesses

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Alvin Dale Jan Garaza, a native of the Philippines, spent the past 12 months at the Sonesta Resort, working every station in the kitchen. He recently completed his year as a J-1 Visa student. Jay Wiendl, general manager of the Sonesta, said about 60 of h

Worker shortages at restaurants, retail stores, service companies, construction firms and hotels on Hilton Head Island is not new news. The issue has been in the news this entire decade, and there's no quick fix, let alone a permanent solution.

One might blame the epidemic on the lack of affordable housing, high rents on the island, relatively low wage pay, competition for employees, Bluffton's emergence as a more affordable and employable hot spot, and the continued growth westward to I-95 that requires a sustainable workforce.

One might also place a finger of accountability on the Town of Hilton Head Island government for not initiating a fixed agenda to relieve the problem, and employers that haven't flexed pay wages and benefits to attract potential workers.

The island's popularity has grown exponentially, but the workforce struggles to accommodate the increasing demand for pressing services.

If the 2.7 million visitors who flock to the island are expected to return year after year, changes have to be made to deliver on the promises we make to the world - that Hilton Head is a first-class vacation destination.

That's the bad news for businesses. The good news is that the unemployment rates locally, in South Carolina and nationwide, are at historic lows. There are more people working than ever before.

In March of this year, the unemployment rate in the Hilton Head-Bluffton-Beaufort geographic area was 3.8 percent, in the Palmetto State 4.4 percent, and nationally 4.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cheryl Stanton, executive director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, wrote recently in a press release: "Record numbers of people are working across the state, taking advantage of the good paying jobs that our businesses are providing."

On Hilton Head, there appears to be a linear divide of big and small businesses that are experiencing wildly different staffing issues. The bigger the better, the smaller the worse, it seems. The lower the wage, the more turnover and difficulty to fill positions and keep them filled.

One local think-tanker, Joan Deery, a retired corporate strategist at IBM and active volunteer on many organizations, including a stint on the Beaufort County Board of Education, thinks businesses should focus more on a market economy approach, in which businesses continuously evaluate the price-value they offer their customers. "When Hilton Head employers decide to raise wages, the market will increase the supply of workers that will satisfy employers' demand," she said. "Yes, prices on the island could rise, but that is what a market-based economy is all about."

Recent casualties of staffing issues caused Main Street Café to close its doors on Sundays after offering service seven days a week for 18 years. Local franchise Massage Envy closed permanently, Tio's Latin American Kitchen closed, and Poseidon restaurant reduced its rooftop bar hours and closed some sections of its restaurant on some days.

"The shortage far exceeds just hospitality," said Jay Wiendl, general manager of the Sonesta Resort on the island.

Sonesta counts a workforce of 260 associates, about 20 positions short of the number Wiendl wants in the best of hospitality worlds, but he won't be singing the summertime blues.

"We always have open positions," he said. "I will tell you I am staffed for the peak season. We're staffed to operate at full capacity."

About 60 of his employees are foreigners on board for nine months on H-2B work-travel visas and for three months on J-1 work visas, and local summer interns selected from generous partnerships with high schools and the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

Wiendl resolved the housing issue for these workers with a "long-term contract for housing for a large number of beds," he said.

But the key is pay and generous benefits: "Staff comes here because we pay more," Wiendl said.

Part of the big picture can be pegged on Hilton Head's and Bluffton's prominence as a travel destination the past many years. The more people read about us, the more they want to visit, which thins our service capabilities.

"The island's room rates continue to rise," Wiendl said. "It's demand and winning Travel & Leisure's No. 1 island. ... Guests on the island are paying the most for rooms that they've ever paid. When you hit the summer season, you have the highest quality of guests."

And the surge of guests creates a ripple effect on other businesses.

"So the busier the hotels, the busier the restaurants, the busier the gas stations, the beaches and the hospitals," said Wiendl, who was board chairman of the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber for three years and is still a board member.

So how does the island attract employees to fill its service needs?

The Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber has formed a Business Workforce Coalition consisting of more than 20 Lowcountry businesses with a workforce exceeding 2,500 jobs. It also is working with USCB on a pilot program to use empty dorm rooms this summer to house workers.

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.­

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