These days, "fully staffed" is a malleable term.
“We’ve basically had to adjust everything, based on the amount of people you can have (on a shift),” said Barry Bialik, who owns the Thirsty Monk brewpubs in Asheville and Biltmore Park. “So, our hours are not fully maxed out because we’re only able to get the amount of staff to open a certain number of days. It’s not staffed out to where we were with the previous levels of COVID.”
For instance, Bialik said the downtown location is open only Thursday-Sunday and Biltmore Park is open five days a week. Before the pandemic, they were open seven days a week.
Besides the Thirsty Monk locations, Bialik also operates a Holy Water sushi and hard seltzer operation in Arden and a Tasty Greens restaurant next to the Biltmore Park brewpub. All of the businesses employ about 25 people.
Bialik also heads up a company, Compact Cottages, that builds workforce-priced housing.
Way more openings than workers
Like just about all business owners during the pandemic, Bialik has struggled to find new workers, and he's had to bolster perks and pay to keep those he has. Businesses across the board in the Asheville-Hendersonville region are struggling to find enough workers.
"We have over 24,000 job openings in the Asheville metro, with just over 6,000 unemployed individuals," Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, said via email. "If everyone searching for a job became employed, we would still have thousands of job openings."
The Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area includes Buncombe, Haywood, Madison and Henderson Counties.
"I’m unaware of a sector which is not struggling to meet their workforce needs right now," Ramsey said. "While the greatest demands are in the entry-level and lower paid occupations, the demand for workers is across the board at all skill and compensation levels."
Jason Chappell, director of the NC Works Career Center in Hendersonville, said they "continue to see great opportunities for job seekers." His office, part of the state's network of employment offices, covers Henderson and Transylvania Counties.
"We have a tremendous number of open positions, and it's really across the board," Chappell said.
As of December 2021, the latest month for which figures are available, Henderson County had 3,809 job openings, Chappell said. A year earlier it was 2,878.
Transylvania had 1,037 job openings at the end of 2021, double that of the end of 2020, with 510 openings. And Chappell noted that more job openings are likely available, as not all employers post with them.
Multiple forces have collided to create this situation, Chappell noted, including a massive wave of retirements among Baby Boomers, reluctance of some workers to go back to work and expose themselves to COVID-19, problems with arranging child care, and workers who are opting to go back to school or change careers.
$60,000 a year job, and no takers
Bialik said COVID-19 has been a driving factor in hiring and retaining employees. His restaurants and pubs exceed the Centers for Disease Control recommendations when it comes to the virus and safety, so if one of their employees tests positive, they have to stay out at least seven days (as opposed to the CDC-recommended five days) and have a negative COVID-19 test before coming back.
On Jan. 11, Bialik said he was sitting in his office alone, because his assistant and a marketing worker were both out recovering from COVID-19, and his bookkeeper had exposure and had to go home.
"So basically, it’s kind of wreaked havoc on us right before New Year’s Eve,” Bialik said of his brewpub operations. “We shut down the 30th, so we were not open for New Year’s Eve, which was painful.”
On the construction side, Compact Cottages is doing well, and the company recently added its own prefabrication operation in Fletcher, which will soon move to a site in Arden. The company has six employees and is looking to hire another for a "superintendent-level position."
They've posted the job with a salary "in the $60s," Bialik said.
"And the response has been nil," Bialik said.
“There’s very few construction jobs that are less than $50,000, and I’d say a lot of them are over $100,000,” Bialik said, noting he’s referring to construction work in general, including skilled and supervisory work. "I think there’s not many people moving here for those kind of jobs, and over the years we haven’t really encouraged people to go into the trades.”
On the restaurant side, they've struggled to find enough staff.
"Any kind of kitchen worker, any back of house worker, you just cannot find,” Bialik said, noting that Thirsty Monk downtown has stopped serving food other than snacks because they don't have the staff to operate it. "We basically made the whole building a private club. That way there’s not a food requirement for the sales.”
The Thirsty Monk operations and the restaurants have increased wages and opened up tipping pools beyond wait staff and bartenders where possible, Bialik said.
Just Economics, the Asheville-based nonprofit, just released a new standard of $17.70 an hour as a living wage in this area, and Bialik said, "There’s no one who makes less than that" in his operations.
New strategies required in hunt for workers
The days of putting a job listing out on an employment site and expecting a flood of applications is over, Bialik added
“For any kind of hiring, you need to be very proactive,” he said, noting they've shifted to employment sites such as Indeed where you can search the pool of applicants and directly reach out to them.
Ramsey recommends employers work with their Workforce Development board and employment offices -- and consider different tactics that acknowledge a new paradigm exists, where workers have a lot of options and are in high demand.
"Employers must aggressively go after workers like a college football team recruits star players," Ramsey said. Also, employers have to make retaining the workers they do have "their number 1 priority," he said.
That includes finding ways to improve your workplace culture and increasing scheduling flexibility, Ramsey said, noting that "remote work is more in demand than ever.
"Prior to the pandemic, one in 67 workers were remote; today it is one in seven," Ramsey said. "And remote jobs have over three times the interest from job seekers."
If you can't make a job remote, "make it more flexible with varying shifts to fit someone’s varied lifestyle and family needs," Ramsey said.
He also offered these suggestions:
Make job descriptions more simple.
Eliminate criminal background checks to the extent possible.
Don’t discard applicants who have workforce gaps.
Offer training and advancement opportunities, known as "defined career pathways."
Start a registered apprenticeship program.
Never take for granted your current employees or various populations that may have been overlooked in the past.
"We can tell employers they need to pay more, and they do because that is necessary due to the fierce competition, but understanding pay is only one part of the equation," Ramsey said. "Most people leave an organization because they become dissatisfied with their supervisor — ultimately they don’t work for an organization, they work for a person."
No end in sight for labor market shortage
Chappell said the Henderson and Transylvania NC Works offices have seen advertised positions showing increased pay, as that comes with a tight labor market.
He expects the scramble for workers to continue through 2022.
"I think we’ll continue to have a labor market shortage, although I do think it will correct itself a little bit," Chappell said. "I hope once we get out of COVID and all the variants, hopefully when those kinds of things happen, it will open it up little bit. But when you're looking at the numbers now, there's still a lot of great opportunities for job seekers."
While the Asheville area is notoriously expensive, wages do not keep up to meet those living costs. But Ramsey said our challenges with pay disparities are much more pronounced at the higher-wage end of the spectrum.
"Employers are raising wages and doing many things to be more competitive than ever, and it often isn’t a simple fix, or employers would have already responded with the changes needed," Ramsey said.
Ramsey said the solution to the worker crunch would be to increase the size of our workforce, which is easier said than done.
"Our workforce is down over 10,000 workers compared to pre-pandemic," Ramsey said.
Ways to expand the workforce include an array of ideas and programs, ranging from increasing availability of child care and supporting former offenders coming out of the criminal justice system, to helping those with substance abuse disorders with their recovery so they can maintain employment and helping older workers to stay in the workforce.
Asked if this employee-short market may be a new normal, Bialik said, "I think it is."
“We talk about how there’s this incredible shortage of affordable housing, there’s an incredible shortage of the construction workers, there’s an incredible shortage of restaurant workers, and hotel workers, retail," Bialik said. "I don’t really see that changing. I think companies are going to have to adapt.”
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Asheville metro job market: 24,000 job openings, scarcity of workers