Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine's Spring 2018 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — On any given week, there are 30 or more temp jobs available at Northern Staffing in Traverse City, yet only five to 12 of those positions typically are filled.
“We have many different positions available at Northern Staffing, and not enough people to apply for those open positions,” said Debra Hacker, branch manager of staffing agency that partners with Michigan Works to find people jobs and fill positions at any given company.
At least two jobs are out there for anyone who wants to work, Hacker said.
“Anyone who wants to work in our area, should have a job or two,” she said. “You can see in Traverse City as you drive around there are help wanted signs everywhere you go.”
Restaurants, retailers and light manufacturing are just a few of the areas that are experiencing widespread worker shortages right now, Hacker said.
Northern Staffing is a temporary to permanent employment agency that mainly recruits employees for light industrial manufacturing companies.
Shifts range from $10 to $12 an hour and higher, depending on the work.
Businesses across town are reporting their employment woes to the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, expressing dismay with open positions that remain unfilled.
“Our members are seeing labor shortages across the board,” said Bill O’Brien, staff writer and researcher for TraverseConnect. “Whether it’s in construction or tech. We’re just seeing a lot of labor shortages, and that also cuts into the temp labor market. When workers are at such a premium, it creates a downward impact on the temp worker force.”
High housing prices are one of the main reasons positions aren’t being filled, Hacker said.
“The rent is just too high. Many of our people, it’s so hard to find affordable housing so they’re rooming with other people or sharing rent together,” she said. “We have some people who don’t even have that. They are couch surfers and living where they can.”
The average median price of houses listed in Traverse City is $387,450, according to real estate website Zillow.
The high-cost housing market also has driven away engineers who couldn’t find houses in the $300,000 to $350,000 range, said Chris Rigan, founder and principal of Adam Kay Group.
His company is an executive recruitment firm, helping both employers and job seekers.
Houses in the $350,000 price range are snatched up so fast in the current housing market that many of the potential job applicants are forced to look at homes out of their budget.
“I’ve had a candidate come up to be a quality engineer and they had a hard time finding housing,” Rigan said. “The market here is that there’s always housing for around $500,000.”
Long gone are the days of companies buying or selling employees’ homes so they could relocate, he said. Instead, companies now offer to pay moving expenses and, sometimes, that’s about all, Rigan said.
He also believes that employers need to pay higher wages, especially when fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King start employees at $11 an hour.
“Entry level positions for manufacturing or retail pays a little lower, and they’re not getting it,” he said.
With tourism season on the way, staffing at restaurants, hotels and retail stores is going to be a challenge, said Matt McCauley, CEO Networks Northwest.
“They’re looking to staff for the summer months. This is going to be a real challenge for them in this environment,” he said. “There’s an infrastructure that’s required for all of us in housing, transportation and child care.”
If such factors are too costly, people will not want to relocate or stay in the region, said McCauley.
Often times, a sector of the workforce will live outside the main part of the city and commute to work.
“A good number of our employees live outside of Traverse City in Kingsley, or they may live in Honor or Grawn, maybe Williamsburg,” Hacker said.
For those workers, the price of transportation is costly.
“The difference there is that no matter where you’re at in the region there’s a demand for talent,” McCauley said. “So it goes back to what every employee looks at when seeking a new job. What’s the cost of that employment? Part of that is housing, and part of that is transportation.”
Some employers in Traverse City offer ride-sharing programs, he said. Other incentives also are being offered.
“There are employers that are now talking about improving access to child care,” McCauley said, noting that some might even provide child-care space on site.
“In this environment, a log of employers are competing for a limited resource of high quality workforce and talent,” he said. “The question is, ‘Why should you work for me opposed to my competitor?’”
Incentives also come in the form of wages, wellness activities and benefits, McCauley said.
The lure of the area alone often helps bring new recruits to Traverse City.
“I can sell the area because I grew up here,” Rigan said. “You gotta be here to appreciate or see it to appreciate it. The people that I target are more people who have vacationed here, who have tried to raise a family here.”
The water activities, hunting and sightseeing all help with recruitment, he said.
“I’ve recruited people from Grand Rapids for several years,” Rigan said.
The worker shortage isn’t just a Traverse City problem, it’s a national problem, McCauley said.
“There are places that we can point to across the nation that have gone down this path, if you will,” he said. “We’re now at a low unemployment rate in the state and across the nation. It’s a real challenge for our region and something that a lot of us are trying to address.”