As summer nears, most Maine tourism businesses are understaffed
May 2—Hiring for summer jobs is in full swing, and Maine tourism businesses are preparing for what some would call a "normal" busy season in pre-pandemic years. But the tight labor market is making recruitment anything but normal.
More than 70% of the businesses say they will be understaffed this summer, according to a new survey from the Maine Tourism Association. Of the group's member companies, which include hundreds of hospitality, retail, recreation and other businesses, 62% said they will have 50% to 90% of the staff needed. Another 9% said they will have less than half of the workers they need.
Maine has been grappling with a labor shortage for years, but the problem has grown worse during the pandemic. Waves of people have moved, changed occupations, left the workforce or retired.
To complicate matters, growing competition for certain types of U.S. visas has limited the number of foreign workers that many coastal and tourism-based businesses depend on each summer. For businesses that are able to find workers, the lack of affordable housing is often another obstacle.
Some businesses have closed their doors recently because of the hiring hurdle. Others are doing what they can to lure workers, offering increased wages, sign-on bonuses, flexible schedules and all sorts of perks. Some businesses even throw in housing. But with so many employers seeking employees, applicants can take their pick of jobs.
Staffing has been "an enormous struggle" for the properties managed by Migis Hotel Group, said Jesse Henry, director of marketing and business development. The shortage has affected numerous hotel offerings, particularly in food and beverage service.
Over the last year, the Westbrook-based hotel management company has upped its focus on recruitment, essentially "reinventing" its hiring strategy, Henry said.
Managers took road trips to Florida and the Carolinas to meet with seasonal resort workers about coming to Maine this summer. The target audience also has shifted. Previously, Migis primarily recruited college students, but now there's a focus on teachers on summer break and retirees who aren't quite ready to stop working.
But the biggest change, Henry said, was the purchase of a former Thornton Academy dormitory in Saco. Migis uses the building to house employees at its two Scarborough hotels, Black Point Inn and Higgins Beach Inn.
The dorm now accommodates 11 seasonal workers, and there are plans to renovate it and convert the space into six affordable workforce housing units.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
Henry said the last several years have been "extraordinary" for visitation and occupancy at the Migis hotels, and he's expecting another strong season this year.
About 15.4 million people visited Maine last year, according to state data, a slight dip from the 2021 total. But direct spending last year by tourists totaled $8.64 billion, compared to $7.85 billion in 2021. The number of visitor nights also increased, climbing 18.4% over the same period.
Nate Cloutier, director of government affairs for industry group HospitalityMaine, said people are viewing 2023 as the official year to reset. They're going back to their pre-pandemic travel habits and are headed for Vacationland.
At the same time, "employers are having to do more with less," he said.
That includes counting on fewer foreign workers. Many of Maine's seasonal businesses rely on employees who come to the state on H-2B temporary visas or J-1 student visas.
The federal government caps the numbers of visas issued each year, and the programs have been backlogged recently as more employers look to foreign workers for help. By the time they arrive in Maine, it's often too late.
"(Businesses) may be able to get the people that they need, but they're not getting the people during peak season when they need them," Cloutier said.
Last week, Sen. Angus King wrote a letter to acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su, urging the Biden administration to speed up the process for certifying the visas.
The application is a time-consuming and cumbersome process, and a slight misstep can cause a several-week delay on top of the weeks or months that the standard processing takes, King said.
"This time frame is completely unfeasible for seasonal businesses in Maine who often have only a few short months to earn the majority of their profits," he said.
Meanwhile, the share of people in the workforce also is dropping.
In March, the labor force participation rate in Maine was just 58%, meaning 42% of the state's potential workers are retired or just not looking for jobs. The participation rate is 5% below the national average.
Amid so many challenges, Zachary Poole, co-owner of Maine Brews Cruise by Maine Tour Co., said his business is behind on its summer hiring. But it's not for lack of trying. There just haven't been many applicants.
And some haven't responded when he's contacted them. Others never showed up for their job interviews.
"There are a lot of jobs out there, so people can be a little pickier on what jobs they decide to interview for," Poole said.
Although the stream of applicants is trickling, inquiries are pouring in from potential Maine visitors and others who might ride the tour bus, he added. In the last few weeks, those numbers have been getting close to pre-pandemic levels. If there aren't enough workers, Poole's business will have to offer fewer tours, although he says that's manageable.
Poole is looking for a handful of part-timers, while large companies have hiring headaches of their own. For example, the roughly 60 McDonald's fast-food restaurants in Maine typically add a total of 900 to 1,000 workers each summer. This season, the eateries are aiming for 1,400, the company said.