Help wanted signs line the major business corridors in Lincoln County, as a long-predicted workforce shortage hits home in Maine’s coastal communities.
Unemployment in Maine is at a record low and there are more open positions available than can be filled by the current labor pool, said Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy, operations, and communications for the Maine Department of Labor.
The state is trying hard to “think outside the box” to attract workers to the state and tap underutilized labor pools to counter the demographic reality that there are not enough young workers to replace the baby boomers hitting retirement age, Rabinowitz said.
While the state undertakes various initiatives to attract workers to Maine, local employers struggle to fill large gaps in their schedules created by a shortage of applicants.
For Mobius Inc., a social service organization that is one of Lincoln County’s largest employers, nearly 70 percent of the organization’s full-time staff members are working regular overtime hours, Executive Director Rebecca Emmons said.
A workforce shortage in spring is something Mobius is accustomed to, with many employees changing or reducing their hours to pick up seasonal work in the hospitality or fishing industries, she said.
“What’s new is that the candidates coming in have decreased substantially,” Emmons said. In April 2015, seven candidates applied for anticipated openings in the schedule. This April, Mobius received only four applications.
The reduction in applicants does not seem significant at face value; however, three people translates into 120 hours of direct care, Emmons said. Currently, Mobius has openings for 10 full-time and three part-time staff members.
“I’ve talked to many local employers,” Emmons said. From convenience stores to restaurants to lumber yards, “we’re all in the same boat. We’re just not seeing job seekers.”
According to the Maine Department of Labor, unemployment has reached record lows in 2016, dropping from 4.9 percent in January 2015 to 3.8 percent in January 2016. As of March 2016, the unemployment rate dropped further to 3.4 percent, the lowest it has been in the past 10 years, and well below the national average of 5 percent.
According to Rabinowitz, the typically quiet labor market in winter may have concealed the shrinking labor pool for employers. With the seasonal hiring effort now in full force, the shortage in the labor pool is obvious, and it is affecting several of Maine’s coastal communities.
Help wanted advertisements in The Lincoln County News are among the indications that the county was experiencing a labor shortage over the winter.
In the Jan. 29, 2015 edition, there were 12 help wanted advertisements for part-time, full-time, and odd job positions. In the Jan. 29, 2016 edition, advertisements for open positions more than tripled to 37, during a time when jobs are historically hard to come by.
In last week’s edition, there were 65 help wanted advertisements from area businesses.
The workforce shortage in coastal communities may in part be reflective of a change on the federal level to visa programs that attract foreign employees for summer camp, restaurant, and hospitality work in the area, Rabinowitz said. Due to tightened regulations for the visa programs, fewer employers are utilizing the programs to find seasonal employees.
The changing structure of Maine’s labor force, however, is predominantly responsible for the workforce shortage for full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees, Rabinowitz said. “The demographic issue is an issue for all employers, but it is exacerbated on the coast because of so many seasonal employers,” she said.
The one-to-one replacement of full-time workers hitting retirement age with young workers seeking full-time employment simply does not exist in Maine, Rabinowitz said. There are about 7,000 workers retiring each year in Maine, she said.
For a state with a labor market of about 700,000 jobs, the state will lose about 10 percent of its labor force in a 10-year period, Rabinowitz said. “It’s a phenomenon that really started to hit around 2013 and it’s going to continue,” she said. “There are not enough young laborers to replace (those retiring).”
Employees who previously supported themselves with two to three seasonal or part-time jobs are now taking available full-time positions, creating additional pressure for seasonal and part-time employers, she said.
The Maine Department of Labor is partnering with other state agencies to develop programs to attract a permanent workforce to Maine, Rabinowitz said. The state is working on new programs to offer student loan forgiveness to out-of-state workers who agree to live here and to provide incentives to employers that hire from underutilized labor pools, such as people with criminal records or individuals transitioning off state assistance, she said.
Employers may also need to start “thinking outside the box” to recruit and retain their workforce, Rabinowitz said. During the recession, seasonal employers could put out a help wanted sign in April and fill vacancies without issue, she said.
Now, seasonal employers should start their recruitment efforts in January or February, and look at ways to engage employees to ensure their return each season, she said.
The Department of Labor does not examine the availability of housing and its impact on the labor pool, but does examine commuting patterns, Rabinowitz said. In examining commuting patterns, the Department of Labor looks at job availability and wages in a given area to determine if the commute is sustainable for workers.
“You’re going to commute farther for a higher-paying job,” Rabinowitz said. In response to the workforce shortage, several employers are raising their wages, she said.
To compensate for the vacancies on its staff, Mobius is paying, on average, 650 overtime hours each week, Emmons said. Mobius has built overtime pay into its budget; however, the overtime pay is preventing the organization from raising the entry-level pay for direct support professionals, Emmons said.
Raising the entry-level pay for direct support professionals, who Emmons called “the life-blood of the organization,” is a priority for Mobius, Emmons said. However, until overtime hours decrease, that won’t be possible. “We’re in a catch-22,” she said.
In the meantime, Mobius continues to attend job fairs, advertise, utilize social media, and work with college career centers to find qualified and caring staff to join its team, Emmons said. The organization is also instituting sign-on bonuses and incentives for long-term employees to help with recruitment and retention, she said.
“What we’re struggling with is where to go to find the job seekers,” Emmons said. “It’s finding the people. Where are they?”