Vermont businesses get creative to attract new employees amid worker shortage
Vermont has near-record-low unemployment rates while also record highs for job availability. Retaining staff and recruiting new applicants has been a challenge for businesses and organizations around the state.
So some businesses are getting creative to attract workers.
Child care as a benefit
Standing inside the childcare center at Smugglers Notch, Brittany Gray is surrounded by miniature tables, brightly colored toys, and young smiling faces. After taking some time off, she's returning to the Jeffersonville resort.
"I've actually only been here three days, this is my third day," Gray said. "And I came back because of the free child care, I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old. And before that, it was just too expensive to be able to work."
When the resort started offering free child care for all employees back in May, Brittany was not the only one who was attracted by the benefit.
“It's all employee kids," she said. "For the most part like today, there's just one guest child. A lot of it's employee kids, and I'm sure they're in the same situation. You know, trying to find child care, and then this opens up and it just, it's a huge help.”
Harley Johnson oversees the child care program. She says the four-seasons resort saw an increase in applications after launching the free child care benefit this past spring.
“Multiple managers have come to me and said how that changed everything for them," Johnson said. "And you know, instead of having hundreds of open positions, we have hardly any open positions at the resort right now."
Workforce is growing, but not enough
Businesses are sweetening the pot to attract workers. And people are coming back to work.
During the first half of this year, Vermont’s workforce experienced the longest stretch of growth since the pandemic began. In June alone, an additional 1,100 people joined the workforce compared to the month prior.
Yet the size of the labor force still pales in comparison to where it was before the pandemic.
“We have such a tight labor market, you know, our unemployment rate is sub-3%," said Mathew Barewicz, the Vermont Department of Labor's labor market information director. "So, you know, there are employers that are saying they need to hire not just one or two people, but five, or 10, or 50, to 100."
Barewicz says Vermont currently has over 20,000 open positions and not enough people to fill them.
“As distance is being gained from the pandemic, we're kind of back in those tight labor market conditions again, where they might, in fact, be tighter due to just the progression of time, and employers trying to maintain current levels or grow their business,” he said.
How about a retirement plan?
When Johnny Seesaw's lodge and restaurant in the Vermont town of Peru closed down at the onset of the pandemic, general manager Kim Prins worried that her staff may leave the service industry permanently.
To try and keep them, they started offering their employees access to a retirement plan.
“We did implement a 401K retirement plan with a company match and investing employees after one year," Prins said. "And it wasn't only for full-time employees, it is for part-time employees as well."
“We have such a tight labor market, you know, our unemployment rate is sub-3%. So, you know, there are employers that are saying they need to hire not just one or two people, but five, or 10, or 50, to 100."Mathew Barewicz, Vermont Department of Labor.
The restaurant is also offering employee housing, and health care to help expand its applicant pool — rare benefits in the service industry.
“It also allowed us to look outside of the local market, because there's a lot of restaurants, a lot of lodges, there's a lot of vacancies in hospitality," Prins said. "And sometimes you're all fishing in the same small pond. So this allows us to look beyond the immediate area.”
She didn’t have a figure on how much these benefits are costing the lodge. But she says it is better than losing applicants to businesses that offer more. When employers can’t hire, they risk losing time, money, and productivity.
How about some housing, too
At Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, housing kept coming up as a barrier to attracting nursing staff.
“We have put out three offers to different people. And top of mind is housing, right? So they're looking for a place to live, and it's a major factor in your in people's decisions that whether or not they take a job here,” said Shawn Tester, the CEO of the hospital.
To deal with the severe nursing shortage, the hospital has been relying on travel nurses. It’s something he says they want to move away from, but for now, it’s an important part of keeping the hospital going.
So, the hospital bought the lease to a local vacant dormitory and transformed it into free housing for travel nurses.
“Our main focus is trying to build our nursing staff, we're relying heavily on travelers, and it's very expensive, and our staff who are here are exhausted, they're overworked,” Tester said.
“Our main focus is trying to build our nursing staff, we're relying heavily on travelers, and it's very expensive, and our staff who are here are exhausted, they're overworked."Shawn Tester, CEO of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital
The lease deal sets the hospital back $2,000 every month. But he says it’s worth it, because it means being able to better protect the staff that is already there from taking on more than what they signed up for. And end up quitting … opening up yet another position to hire for.
The businesses that can, will keep on keeping on
As for whether or not these benefits will stay — it’s unclear if they are permanent.
“The use of amenities may be a more targeted way of attracting employees, as opposed to general wage increases," said Emily Beam, who is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Vermont. "And so in that respect, it can be sustainable for those firms."
Beam says that some businesses do not have the option to offer more.
“For firms that are operating on very tight margins in very competitive industries, it will be harder for them to be able to offer these additional benefits," she said. "And so as a result, it will make them less competitive when trying to attract workers."
Regardless, employers across the state are desperately holding on to the staff they have so they can keep business going.