Labor shortage hits hard in Sonoma County
The advent of wildflowers and warm weather typically heralds the coming of summer. But for hotel manager Percy Brandon, it signals that he's about to lose workers.
“Landscapers and dishwashers are the first ones to leave,” said Brandon, general manager of the Vintners Inn north of Santa Rosa.
They depart for seasonal jobs that pay more money, often with wineries and vineyard management companies. This year, however, it is particularly difficult to replace them.
A low jobless rate, a tight housing market and steady growth among the county's hospitality businesses is making it harder than ever for Brandon to find cooks and other workers for the inn and its three kitchens, including its highly regarded John Ash & Co. restaurant.
“It's the worst it's ever been,” said Brandon, who has worked here 17 years.
The hospitality sector isn't the only one dealing with a shortage of help. From construction to health care, from food manufacturers to wineries, Sonoma County employers say finding available workers has become a major headache.
The shortages affect low-paying jobs such as dishwashers, who average less than $23,000 a year, and higher-paying positions such as nurses, who average nearly $102,000. In between are cooks and teachers, carpenters and food production line operators.
Business leaders are calling for action to address what they say could one day become an even bigger problem. Some point to the expected exodus of aging baby boomers from the job market. Others say businesses need to sponsor greater outreach and career training opportunities because today's public school students won't naturally gravitate to such sectors as construction and manufacturing.
“The next generation doesn't want to do the jobs that their parents did,” said Shanne Malilay, director of talent acquisition for Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines. Last month he took part in a new career education event where 15 food and beverage manufacturing businesses offered select groups of high school and college students a chance to learn more about careers in the industry.
Six years ago, the business community was focusing its attention on an entirely different problem: a shortage of jobs. County business leaders came together in March 2011 to announce a new job development program known as BEST, or Building Economic Success Together. At the time, unemployment hovered at 10.7 percent and county employers had shed 18,000 jobs over the previous four years.
Fast-forward to March 2017. The unemployment rate had declined to 3.6 percent, the lowest level for the month in 16 years. And the county had added 32,000 jobs in the last six years.
One in five of those new jobs was created in the lodging and restaurant sector, an increase of 40 percent since 2011. About 2,000 of the 6,500 new hospitality workers are employed at the Graton Resort & Casino, which debuted in 2013. Graton opened a $175 million hotel last November and now is considering another major expansion.
Other hotels and restaurants are slated to open this year, prompting business leaders to predict the demand for hospitality workers will remain strong for some time.
“I think everybody in the lodging segment is having challenges hiring workers,” said Steve Jung, general manager at the Doubletree Rohnert Park and president of the Sonoma County Lodging Association. “This is probably one of the worst situations that we've seen.”
Officials point to a variety of factors that contribute to the worker shortage.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said companies have enjoyed historically low interest rates to help finance the expansion of their businesses and the additions to their workforces.
Also, older workers are retiring at a steady pace. An estimated 50,000 county workers - roughly a quarter of the workforce - will retire over the next decade, Stone said last month at an annual breakfast meeting of business and civic leaders.
Economist Steven Cochrane, the breakfast's keynote speaker, said in an interview that the worker shortage will be likely exacerbated because fewer immigrants are coming to the U.S. and joining the workforce. The lack of immigrants - partly due to border tightening and partly to better economic conditions in Mexico - and the departure of baby boomers into retirement could result in persistent labor shortages for local businesses over the next 10 to 15 years.
“It's baked into the demography,” said Cochrane, managing director for Moody's Analytics, a research firm based in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Business leaders also foresee a growing demand for local workers from new businesses that are expected to produce or sell marijuana, which was legalized for adult recreational use in November under Proposition 64. Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the cannabis sector's impact on hiring remains uncertain, “but there will be competition as it comes out in the light.”