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.

Employment reversal

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.”

Different industries have certain jobs that are the bane of the hiring manager.

Terri Stark, co-owner of six county restaurants, and Robin Carlson, director of human resources for the Sonoma-based Mary's Pizza Shack chain, both said the hardest jobs for them to fill by far are those in the “back of the house” - the dishwashers, food preps, pizza makers and cooks.

“This year we're really feeling it more than we have in the past,” said Stark.

Said Carlson of the worker shortage: “Demand is greater than the supply that we have on hand.”

For food manufacturers and wineries, the biggest need is for “people who can run the machines, people that can maintain the machines,” said Robert McGee, president of Straus Family Creamery in Petaluma.

Gina Charbonneau, people operations director for Francis Ford Coppola Winery near Geyserville, said that for wineries, “the elusive bottling line mechanic role is an absolute thorn in our side.”

And Malilay said Jackson Family Wines just offered a job to an Oregonian because it couldn't find anyone in California with the skills to program the computers that control high-speed bottling lines.

“It took us three years to fill that role,” he said.

Offering incentives

The state estimates about 9,400 people are seeking work in the county, close to the lowest level in a decade. In a job market like that, businesses are giving their current workers bonuses to help find additional workers. And various groups are hosting job fairs.

At one job fair earlier this month at the Graton Resort and Casino, several hundred job seekers milled around the aisles lined with about 40 company booths. The fair, hosted by Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, brought out those with experience in nursing, information technology, accounting and physics. Some said they had a job and were looking for a better one.

Among the seekers was Victoria Venard, who had worked six years as a pastry maker and line cook after getting trained at Santa Rosa Junior College. She had taken a year off to travel and now was looking to change fields.

“I'm keeping my options open,” she said about future employment. But she said she wanted a job that allows more time to be with her family during the holiday season. As a restaurant employee, she said, “I worked every Thanksgiving, every Christmas Eve, every New Year's.”

In the hunt for workers, some industries look beyond the county. Even so, the search takes longer than it once did.

In health care, the jobless rate for the sector's workers is even lower than for the general population, said John Bibby, regional vice president of human resources for St. Joseph Health. Last year the nation's health care employers filled just slightly more than half of 1 million available positions.

St. Joseph's five North Coast hospitals currently have 580 job openings, Bibby said. Five years ago, it took an average of 35 days to fill a position. Today, the average is about 60 days.

The health care system uses recruiters, some of whom have found employees from southern Oregon and Southern California for its Sonoma County and Humboldt County hospitals.

Because of higher housing costs in the North Bay, many staff members won't live where they work. At its Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa, Bibby said, “We get a lot of employees from Fairfield and Vallejo to drive in.”

For a tech business like Santa Rosa's Keysight Technologies, the hiring challenges look considerably different depending on the specialty.

Shireen Donaldson, vice president of human resources for the electronic testing device company, said the hiring climate for engineers has been relatively stable for several years and is affected less by the local job market than by the demand for tech workers in the greater Bay Area.

“We're kind of competing with the Googles, the Facebooks,” Donaldson said. Success relies in part on “a very strong university recruitment program” to attract new graduates from the region's colleges.

But at the same breakfast meeting where Stone and Cochrane spoke, Keysight Vice President Pat Harper said local manufacturers will face a “crisis” if they can't develop new ways to replace the many production workers who will retire in the coming years.

“Who is going to make those pieces of equipment?” Harper asked. He called for greater collaboration by businesses to engage public school students so they get hands-on opportunities to create items and learn about the opportunities available in manufacturing.

‘We've got a crisis'

Concern about attracting younger workers is shared by construction industry leaders.

Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group, points to a recent survey by the National Association of Homebuilders on the career interests of today's youth. Only 3 percent of those aged 18 to 25 expressed a desire to go into the construction trades. That is far less than the top three sectors: medical, 16 percent; business, 12 percent; and technology, 9 percent. Today, construction workers make up about 6 percent of the county's total employment.

“We've got a crisis,” Woods said. “It's unbelievable.”

Similar concerns have prompted business leaders and educators to collaborate for years on creating more career education classes in the county.

Such courses, which routinely rely on the guidance of business leaders, now exist in all the county's comprehensive high schools, said county schools Superintendent Steve Herrington. The offerings are aimed at both university-bound students and those who will seek further career training after high school. Herrington said he believes the programs should get some credit for helping raise county high school graduation rates.

In addition to those classes, new efforts include a “construction core” training/summer boot camp and a new “maker” facility in southwest Santa Rosa, where Harper and other business leaders hope to attract students to learn electronics, robotics, machining, woodworking and welding.

Such offerings have been aided by a 5-year-old nonprofit, the Career Technical Education Foundation. The Santa Rosa-based organization, which has received financial support from the county of Sonoma, began offering grants in 2013 and by this summer will have awarded $1.75 million to schools and business groups.

Kathy Goodacre, the foundation's executive director, said the aim is to help students learn about possible careers through hands-on opportunities.

“It all comes down to work experience,” she said.

While Herrington's office provides staff and support for career education programs, it is also working to increase the number of local teachers and administrators.

In 2015, the county office founded its North Coast School of Education, which now has 200 candidates seeking teaching and administrative credentials. The program will help schools deal with the expected shortage caused by the departure of older educators. He noted that a third of the county's 3,700 teachers currently are eligible to retire.

Herrington also is seeking to help more teachers buy homes. In a typical year, he said, about 10 percent of teachers here quit to take jobs outside the county. They are drawn either to higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the Bay Area or to communities both in California and out of state with lower housing costs.

“It's really important for teachers to be vested in the community,” Herrington said.

His concern about housing those workers is shared by many in the business community. Some leaders note that only about a quarter of county households can afford a home here priced at the $639,000 median.

At the recent food manufacturing event for high school and college students, several business leaders said that both their companies and the greater community will benefit from giving young people more opportunities to explore careers.

“This is our workforce,” said William Seppi, president/CEO of Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg. “We have to invest in it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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