By Emily Erickson
Fumbling with my blinker, I quickly signaled before victoriously turning into the freshly opened diagonal parking space in front of the Cedar Street Bridge. Scoring a diagonal parking space has become my downtown Sandpoint version of a row of cherries in a slot machine, and I could barely keep myself from cheering aloud.
Pushing my car door open, I walked into the sunshine and into the mild bustle of restaurant and shopgoers on an early summer weekday afternoon. With no agenda other than to enjoy being home after traveling, I meandered along storefronts casually acknowledging the window displays.
And then something began catching my eye, gaining significance with each one I passed. It was a phenomenon similar to seeing white cars on the highway. You don’t notice a single white minivan, but as another, and another, and another go by, it becomes an unignorable pattern. But what I was noticing in storefront windows weren’t white cars. They were “now hiring” signs, and they were everywhere.
As summer approaches, many shops, restaurants, gas stations and other service-providing businesses in Sandpoint are looking for reliable help. Which begs the question: Where are all the workers?
I strode first into a gas station to investigate the “now hiring” epidemic and talked to a hiring manager who hadn’t had a day off in weeks. It had become her new normal. “We are down two people heading into summer, and it’s like nobody wants to work,” she expressed, exasperated.
But having been in the Sandpoint service industry, where most of my peers were working two or three jobs and gearing up for the summer-expected 50- to 60-hour work weeks, I was unsatisfied with the theory of general unwillingness to work being the single cause of staffing strife. So I continued my investigation.
I entered a retail shop next, speaking with the owner about her experience with finding enough workers to fill their summer schedule. “It’s been like this for years,” she explained, “but I’m wondering if high schoolers just don’t work any more.” She talked about the decline in the past few years in finding summertime help from younger employees and discussed the problem with college-aged kids needing to leave during peak tourism weeks to go back to school.
Continuing to dig, I made my way into a restaurant looking for additional service staff to increase their support for the tidal wave of summer business soon to crash onto their outdoor patios. “It’s not like there isn’t money to be made,” a server described. “It’s just everyone I know is already working somewhere else.”
So there are good jobs available, enough even to choose from, there is money to be made, and nobody is applying. What gives?
Well, I think there are a few reasons.
First, there aren’t enough young people in the community to meet the high demand for service positions, especially in the summertime. Whether we like it or not, Sandpoint in the summer months operates at a level consistent with resort-town tourism, without the extra support tourist towns typically import.
Next, even if we were successful in bringing in people specifically to work the peak seasons, they’d have nowhere to live. Another strategy of tourist towns often take is for the restaurants, the city, and the tour operators to provide employee housing with cheap rent and the camaraderie and quality of housing consistent with summer camp.
Finally, regarding the non-tipped positions, the wages are not competitive with other summertime working destinations, like those in Washington that start at $10 an hour, and when combined with the cost of living in and around Sandpoint, are not a viable option for most people outside of high school.
Completing my staffing reconnaissance, I visited a bar in town without a “now hiring” sign to inquire about what they were doing right. This establishment has had very little employee turnover, and has hired additional staff at a fraction of the rate of the rest of the town has.
The general manager suggested, “I think the nature of a bar is a bit different. I’m able to give my employees freedom and authority to discuss what’s working well in their roles and what isn’t, and to help them make more money along the way.” His employees are older and are professionals in their positions, and he strives to keep them happy and creative, assisting in maintaining high tips and consistent wages.
As I made my way back to my perfect diagonal parking spot, I locked eyes with an employee inside a shop with another hopeful “now hiring” sign on the door and smiled my best “hang in there, friend” smile. Who knows what the problem is, but one thing’s for certain. It’s going to be one heck of a summer.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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