When Dori Kelley was hired as a communications specialist for the city of Bee Cave two months ago, the first thing she did was start planning a job fair at Lake Travis High School.
“We struggle with staffing all the time and ever since COVID it's only doubled,” she said. “I contacted the high school and they got back to me within just a couple of days. They were really happy to work with us. It was their inaugural job fair.”
That effort was an expansion of an initiative Kelley launched over four years ago to help businesses find staffing, especially by hiring teens. She said a combination of factors — a lack of public transportation, affordable housing, affordable child care — make it hard for businesses in the area to attract staff for service jobs.
Kelley said the job fair on May 16 was a huge success. In the first week after she announced the event, 50 businesses signed up to participate and a total of 76 showed up. Over 1,000 students attended and the fair generated 23 on-the-spot hires, Kelley said, with one business receiving 56 applications.
“Another business said at this job fair alone they received more interest in the positions they've advertised professionally for two and a half years with zero hits,” she said. “I'm just really thankful we had the Bee Cave Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Board help out with volunteering. Without all of these people, I couldn't have pulled it off.”
Lance Hall, the general manager at the Maple Street Biscuit Company, said he was able to fill seven part-time positions with local teens at the job fair, which he was counting on to help get the restaurant off the ground. Maple Street Biscuit Company serves brunch and has 45 locations in other states, but Bee Cave is one of the first in Texas.
“The event itself was more than anything I could have asked for,” Hall said. “Without it, I'm not too sure we would survive with the employment crisis in Bee Cave and a lot of people having to drive into Bee Cave to work as opposed to the community working there itself. I've been hiring since March and I would say this is the most successful event we've done.”
Hall said he was able to hire younger students to work the register and some older teens for back of the house work like grilling or making the biscuits.
Christy Black, who owns and operates four Primrose School locations including in Bee Cave, said the job fair was a great way for her business to connect with teens who can serve as support staff while the schools continue to seek out full-time employees. Teens can’t be left alone in classrooms with students, Black said, but can provide a helping hand and assist with summer field trips.
“If we could hire those five high school kiddos to help us during this crunch while we're continuing to look for actual teachers, that could help us,” she said. “We have families that aren't able to start at our school because we don't have enough staff. And so that was my thinking in hitting up a high school career fair, it's right on the cusp of summer ...six people looking for 20 hours, that's three bodies that could help us offset being down actual fulltime, tenured people.”
Black said her Bee Cave location needs about five additional fulltime staff, with additional openings at her other sites. She said the fair yielded 12 applications and so far she has scheduled three interviews.
Black has been an advocate for creative and long-term solutions to help the Lake Travis area combat staffing shortages. She often speaks in favor of affordable housing to help workers live in the area closer to different kinds of jobs.
The Bee Cave City Council voted in October to take the first step toward building workforce housing on the city-owned Skaags property, in part after a push by local business owners. Members of the Lakeway City Council have expressed support for the idea of workforce housing, though the council has voted down two proposals since November based on concerns about the specific projects.
Black said she felt Bee Cave’s job fair was an excellent step in the right direction — and indicative of how much need local businesses have for additional workers.
“It was bittersweet to see all the jobs, all the employers that were there. It was a very stark realization of our problems out here,” she said. “I was also very surprised and pleasantly surprised with the number of students that were actively interested, or seemed to be, in working because there's like a stigma out here that they don't want to work or they don't have to work and that I didn't feel that was the case.”
Kelley said connecting teenagers with local jobs is a win for everybody — the teens get to earn money and learn important life skills, and businesses have told her young workers are highly trainable and motivated.
For teens who missed the fair, Kelley has a Facebook page called Worker Bees that she has operated for years to help connect employers with local staff. She is also looking forward to the job fair next spring.
“Let's stay positive, working together and finding solutions on this effort instead of getting frustrated,” she said. “We know it's frustrating, but we're taking the steps that we need to get solutions and we look forward to the community getting together and doing more things like this.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Bee Cave businesses turn to teens to combat staffing shortages