If you’ve been out and about in Southern Vermont since COVID-19 restrictions began to be lifted and businesses started to open again, you’ve seen that the worker shortage is no secret.
From restaurants, hotels and retail establishments to schools, hospitals and manufacturers, everyone is feeling the strain of simply not enough hands on deck.
“It is a national problem and a global problem, not a Southwestern Vermont problem or a Vermont problem,” said Matt Harrington, executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “Overall, if you were to look all over the country, you’d see there are shortages everywhere.”
The labor force participation rate has rebounded some, but not fully, since the emergence of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website. The figure is still a full percentage point, or 2.75 million workers, lower than it was in February 2020. However, even if every unemployed American found a job, there would still be over 5 million unfilled positions nationwide.
One industry that is struggling at the national level, and almost every Vermonter feels the effects of, is transportation. “Supply chain issues” has become a common phrase of the public lexicon, largely because of the lack of truck drivers. The American Trucking Association reported a shortage of 80,000 drivers back in July.
Todd West, the owner of Northeast Driver Training in Bellows Falls, noted how businesses from small oil delivery companies to those that move goods across the country, can’t get enough drivers.
“Our training is four- to five-weeks long, and as soon as they go out the door, there’s a job waiting for them,” he said.
The dearth of qualified drivers isn’t only an issue for moving goods, but also our most precious cargo — children. School bus drivers are in shorter and shorter supply since the pandemic.
Even buses, too
“It’s never been this hard,” said Franci Carieri, facilities coordinator at Burr and Burton Academy, who oversees transportation for the school. Burr and Burton owns its own buses, but only has three regular drivers on staff. “I used to be able to call Dufour when we needed someone, but (district manager Mike Gardner) is always short on drivers now. He would always help out, but now he can’t.”
Burr and Burton Athletic Director Dave Miceli hopped behind the wheel of a 14-passenger van himself this past Friday, just to get his varsity field hockey team to their game in Hartford, which is 77 miles away. Miceli downplayed his stepping up to make the event happen, but encouraged others to become bus drivers as a way to serve their communities.
“This isn’t just us. This is a statewide problem,” Miceli said. “Being a bus driver is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also very rewarding. Personally, I’d much rather be driving the cargo that can smile and say good morning to you.”
Burr and Burton has even provided busing help for competitors, as well, sending its own drivers to Brattleboro to make athletic events in Manchester possible.
Mount Anthony Union High School has also been affected. This Saturday, Woodstock was forced to cancel its boys varsity soccer game with the Patriots due to no available bus drivers.
Churn in entry-level and clinical jobs
At Southwestern Vermont Health Care, one of the region’s largest employers, Public Information Officer Ray E. Smith said recruiting for clinical positions in a rural region is always challenging and a priority, especially when competing against urban markets. He noted that there isn’t one specific profession at SVHC medical offices and hospital system that has been hardt hit.
“But since the pandemic our highest turnover tends to be in our entry level, support departments and key clinical positions,” Smith said in an email to Vermont News & Media.
He said SVHC is starting to see some improvement in the last couple of months, but the dearth of workers has not yet leveled off and worker churn isn’t helping.
“Our labor shortages may have started later than some other industries, but we are having a higher trend of turnover and difficulty filling positions more in the last six to eight months than in the last few years,” Smith said.
Sales, editorial team delivering papers
Vermont News and Media — parent company of the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal — is not immune to the workforce challenges, particularly in hiring subcontractors and drivers.
“We’ve had to get creative to fill these positions and rely on existing staff to absorb the workload,” said Jordan Brechenser, president of Vermont News & Media, noting that the Banner’s editor and sales team delivered papers on Tuesday morning to subscribers’ homes in the region. “I am over the moon happy we have such dedicated staff to step up and help, but the reality is that isn’t a sustainable option for the long term.”
Brechenser noted how the workforce has shifted, and that businesses need to continually shift along with it.
“In some cases that means making tough decisions on how you operate and provide services. It’s a daily challenge,” said Brechenser.
Can’t open fully
One very tangible example for anyone with a penchant for dining out is the food service industry.
Mike Madison, co-owner of Madison’s Brewing Company Pub & Restaurant and 421 Craft Bar and Kitchen, has a grander vision for both Bennington institutions situated across from each other on Main Street, but for a variety of reasons, hasn’t been able to remain properly staffed.
“We would love to open five nights a week, and maybe a lunch shift or something on a Sunday; we just don’t have enough kitchen staff,” Madison said of 421, adding that Madison’s has been closed on Sunday nights for the past year for the same reason. “I don’t know how long it’s going to be before it turns around.”
Vermont, rural challenges
While labor shortages are not an issue exclusive to the area, Harrington, the chamber’s leader, noted that Vermont still faces its own challenges and unique reasons for the shortages.
“Vermont, historically, has not been great at keeping up with the demands of pay for an employee,” Harrington said.
He added that, while rural Vermont might not be competitive in terms of employee compensation, the worker scarcity problem is multifaceted.
“It is this perfect storm of a variety of things,” Harrington said. “Vermont is getting older. Our workforce is retiring. People are reevaluating their career paths. We’re experiencing less immigration … it’s not any one thing. It’s a bunch of things coming off the pandemic, where we shut down the economy for two years,” he said.
Businesses must adjust
In certain areas, Vermont business owners could do better. While Harrington certainly understands the challenges business owners face in keeping up with more populous surrounding areas, he suggested that retailers need to get more creative in how they attract and retain employees.
“We don’t change our behavior until we feel pain,” Harrington said. “It will be interesting to see how painful it has to get before we really start to question some of our practices as employers in order to support our employees.”
At SVHC, Smith said the regional medical system is offering sign-on and retention bonuses for key positions, as well as new tuition reimbursement benefits in its nursing program. He said SVHC also is looking to expand its day care services for staff and is exploring workforce housing options.
Monitoring market trends on salaries and adjusting on the fly helps the hospital system to stay competitive, Smith said.
The Mack Molding method
There is some hope, and perhaps a blueprint for a path forward, in Arlington’s Mack Molding. Durable goods and manufacturing is second to only wholesale and retail trade in industries facing the greatest worker shortages, per the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Mack, however, is thriving. While still looking to add about 40 workers to their force and seeking them out through various job fairs in the area, according to Human Resources Director Brian Nolan, Mack is reaping the benefits of a reputation of taking care of its workers.
“We’re excited to get back to employee appreciation,” said Larry Hovish, director of communications at Mack Molding. “There are a lot of things we couldn’t do during COVID that we’re working back in now.”
While Mack is excited to return to employee family days and Christmas get-togethers, there has been a culture of appreciation for some time now. Hovish proudly mentioned Mack’s system of two performance reviews annually for hourly employees, which affords the subject a chance at a bonus each time. The company also took its employees on a Disney trip.