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Terry Cowgill
Diners and coffee sippers enjoy themselves at Patisserie Lenox in Great Barrington while a 'help wanted' sign hangs in the window, a common sight in the downtown area this season.

Can’t find decent help? ‘Workforce issue’ likely the cause

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By Friday, Jun 1, 2018 News 26

Great Barrington — It’s not easy finding help in South County, especially heading into summer, the peak period for tourists and part-time homeowners. Take a look at the many “help wanted” signs on store windows or ask just about any merchant in downtown Great Barrington and you will get an earful. 

And the problem for retailers has been exacerbated by a challenging labor market. In the month of April, the federal unemployment rate shrunk to 3.9 percent, the lowest such rate in 18 years.

Sonya and Jean Yves Bougouin of Patisserie Lenox in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Patisserie Lenox

Jean Yves Bougouin and his wife, Sonya, own Patisserie Lenox, a French-style cafe with locations in Great Barrington, Lenox and Hudson, New York. A few months ago, they opened a new patisserie in Northampton. 

Asked in a brief interview in his Great Barrington cafe whether he had trouble finding help, Jean Yves Bougouin let out a belly laugh: “Very funny,” he guffawed. Then he turned more serious.

“It’s just a nightmare finding people that will commit,” Bougouin said. “And it’s not just the Berkshires. At all our locations, it’s the same thing.”

Bougouin said a number of factors are working against him and other retailers. Fewer high schoolers and college students are out there and fewer still are looking for work. Those who are interested are not inclined to be available whenever they don’t feel like working.

“We do get school kids [during the summer], but they have to go on vacation,” Bougouin explained. “Or they say, ‘I can’t come to work today because of this or because of that.’ So it becomes an impossible situation.”

When Bougouin was growing up in Europe, he pretty much had a set schedule for his summer vacation, which allowed him to apply himself to whatever job he was working. Sonya makes out the weekly work schedule for their 40 employees, but it’s very much a work in progress.  

“Nowadays young people are so scattered,” Bougouin said, referring to the multiple directions they are being pulled by family and preparation for college or the professional workplace.

Bougouin said he advertises in newspapers and online. Word of mouth can also be effective. And like several downtown merchants, he has a sign in his window announcing his need for help. And it’s not as if the front-end and server staff are paid poorly. With tips, most staff earn about $20 per hour. As for the baking for the four cafes, Bougouin does almost all of that himself because finding another skilled baker is almost impossible. 

Robin’s Candy in Great Barrington is offering a $100 store gift card as an incentive for a successful referral of employment. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Across Main Street from Patisserie Lenox is Robin’s Candy, a popular destination for young and old alike. Owner Robin Helfand has gotten creative in trying to attract help. She has a sign posted on a glass door announcing “great summer job” opportunities for “college students.” But unlike other such signs seen in town, this one offers a $100 Robin’s gift card for each successful referral.

“Our staffing shortage is particularly dire in terms of hiring summer staff able to work the full season though Labor Day and willing to work evenings/weekends in exchange for a generous salary/bonus well above minimum wage,” Helfand told the Edge.

Robin Helfland of Robin’s Candy in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy National Retail Federation.

Helfand is supplementing her usual ad campaigns with social media posts and online listings in ZipRecruiter and Indeed, as well as on her website, where she lists three immediate openings. Helfand has enlisted the help of her adult children when they are available. She recently interviewed two local students who saw her plea for help on the Great Barrington Community Board Facebook page. 

She is also starting the process of recruiting overseas workers by applying for the necessary visa allotments. Helfand expects this could take over a year, “but may ultimately be the only means to staff for our peak periods.” At any rate, Helfand says the scarcity of summer help has gotten progressively worse in her 10 or so years on Main Street.

“We try to laugh about this, but the absence of reliable, dedicated staff is a critical factor limiting our ability to expand,” Helfand explained. “Co-opting my grown children to help during peak weekends is not a sustainable solution.”

And of course, in a higher-end retail environment, customers expect knowledgeable sales staffers who understand the product and can appreciate the needs of the clientele.

“Importantly, we, like most businesses, need more than just ‘bodies’ to provide the excellent customer service our guests expect and deserve,” Helfand explained. “We need staff able to meet certain standards.”

Matthew Rubiner agrees. He owns Rubiner’s Cheesemongers and Rubi’s Cafe on Main Street. It’s been harder each of the 14 years he has owned the business to keep it fully staffed. And the specialty aspect of his business, especially in the grocery store, has added to the challenge.

The staff at Rubi’s in Great Barrington was hard at work this week making grilled cheese sandwiches and pouring iced coffees. Photo: Terry Cowgill

To be a good barista takes months of training,” Rubiner said. “And then in the store, which might even be more difficult to staff, there’s just this world of information that you need to know: about the cheese, about the specific skills of this trade, using the meat slicer and knowing the grocery products.”

One problem Rubiner faces is that, in the years since he has owned the business, kids and young adults have to return to school earlier and earlier. High schools in Massachusetts generally start up the week before Labor Day and colleges typically a week earlier than that. 

Matthew Rubiner of Rubiner’s Cheesmongers and Rubi’s Cafe in Great Barrington. Photo: Bone & Black

“It’s gotten really difficult because there’s just a disconnect between the fact that the three busiest weeks of our season are the last two weeks of August and the first week of September,” he continued. “That’s by far our busiest stretch. That’s the stretch we look to to make much of our money for the year.” 

Rubiner is also convinced part of the labor pool problem is attributable to the fact that Berkshire County is a place where “some people aren’t here for very long. You have some transients, and of course young people looking for that next step.” 

Looking back, Rubiner added, “If you asked me ‘what do you wish you knew more about when you opened the store,’ it would be labor and refrigeration maintenance.” That prompted a laugh from both Rubiner and his interviewer. 

Two other businesses surveyed by the Edge have had a comparatively easier time staffing the premises. Fuel, the popular coffee shop and restaurant on Main Street, is one such place.

Eugene “Will” Curletti owns the shop with his wife, Robin. He said Fuel has a lot of college kids who often return for multiple summers. He attributed that good fortune to “the nature of our shop. It’s a fun working environment.”

Robin and Will Curletti, owners of Fuel Coffee Shop on Main Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Michael Thomas

Indeed, Fuel is known for its aromatic coffee-infused environment, its good food and its hipster vibe. For obvious reasons, young people of working age seem to gravitate to Fuel. 

“Right now I’m fully staffed,” Curletti said. “I’m still looking for people for the kitchen, but I think that’s year-round and every kitchen in town has that issue. I’m not really sure what it is, but it’s easier for me to staff the floor and the coffee bar. The kitchen has always been the question mark.”

South of town on Route 7, Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, the upscale grocer, is also advertising for help. The store’s efforts include a lawn sign on the grassy median next to the street.

Guido’s, which also has store farther up Route 7 in Pittsfield, is having an average year in terms of filling available employment slots according to Alicia Aldam, who manages human resources for the Masiero family, which owns the company. But it’s a little more difficult in South County because the labor pool is smaller. 

“That’s why I start in March for our summer hire needs. Fortunately, we have developed great long term relationships with students who work the summer and then are able to work during the holidays when home from college,” Aldam said in an email. “Often, they refer their friends/family so we have a steady stream of choices. It is a win-win.”

Guido’s recruitment strategy always included in-store advertisements and, like Helfand’s candy store, this year Guido’s used Indeed.com, Aldam said. 

Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington is one of the many businesses in town advertising for summer help. Photo: Terry Cowgill

There are a variety of theories as to why the seasonal labor market has been tightening over the years. Birth rates all over the northeastern U.S. have been dropping for at least a generation, so there are fewer young people out there looking for work in the first place. 

As both Rubiner and Bougouin have pointed out, a shorter summer vacation means fewer students are available and, for those who are willing to work, their available weeks have been reduced along with their vacations. 

In addition, more students are willing to forgo a paycheck in the summer while taking a volunteer community-service position or an unpaid internship to put on college applications or to build their resumes for life after college. And many now have overbooked extracurricular activity schedules, contributing to what Bougouin called the “scattered” nature of their lives.

The seasonal employment situation has deteriorated to the point that some business owners on Cape Cod are traveling to Puerto Rico to look for workers. The shortage of foreign workers is due in part to the fact that H-2B visas are much harder to come by. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last fall, the unemployment rate hit 10 percent. And as American citizens, Puerto Ricans do not need work visas.

Heather P. Boulger is executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, which provides leadership for workforce development in the county. She said about 12 Puerto Ricans have been recruited for employment opportunities this season in the Berkshires.

Heather Boulger of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. Photo courtesy iBerkshires

Boulger pointed to data recently released on Berkshire County employment in April, the latest month for which statistics were available. Click here to see them.

Boulger confirmed that Berkshire County has been losing population, with declining birth rates, even as the so-called baby boomer” generation is retiring. As of April, Berkshire County’s unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, down 0.03 percentage points from April of last year, but still a full percentage point higher than the statewide rate of 3.3 percent. The job vacancy rate in Berkshire County is 5.1 percent, higher than the statewide rate of 4.8 percent. 

“We’ve always struggled, but this year is more dynamic than in years past,” Boulger said.

She said there are 2,900 people collecting unemployment benefits in Berkshire County, but the actual number of unemployed might be closer to 5,000 because some people have given up looking for work or are otherwise out of the labor market.

Employers have reached out to veterans’ groups and the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 immigrants in the county, but it’s still hard to find qualified workers.

“Employers are frustrated by posting jobs and not finding people with skills they’re looking for,” Boulger explained. “Thousands of job opportunities in Berkshire County are going unfilled.”

Boulger said her group has been working with Berkshire Community College on meeting that need through increased training opportunities, including in so-called advanced manufacturing, which requires a higher level of skill—but also offers higher pay—than traditional manufacturing.

“We wish we had a magic wand,” Boulger said. “Anyone who wants a job should be able to find one.”

Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire. Photo courtesy 1Berkshire

Jonathan Butler is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the umbrella organization created in 2010 to coordinate the region’s economic and cultural agencies. He told the Edge the employment situation in the Berkshires has been “turned on its head.”

“There has been a shift in the economy here over last five to seven years,” Butler explained. “The reality is we have a workforce issue.”

Advanced manufacturing, health care and hospitality are the industries seeing the greatest need for workers. He applauded the work being done by BCC and the Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts “to address the training gaps.”

BCC, for example, now offers an associate degree in manufacturing technology, while MCLA has an extensive health sciences program.

“There’s also been major investments by the culturals, new hotels or expansion of existing hotels, and a huge growth in the food industry in the Berkshires,” Butler said. “Most of these are in the visitor economy. It’s an opportunity to get ourselves better.”

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26 Comments   Add Comment

  1. mary says:

    The reason people don’t want these jobs is that they are low paying and dealing with the summer crowd of relentlessly rude New Yorkers is torture. Even if the jobs were better paying, the treatment these poor workers receive from these customers is absolutely horrific.

  2. dennis irvine says:

    The article only mentions wages once and that included tips. If a business cannot, or does not, pay a living wage(before tips) then that business is not viable.

    1. Robin Weiser says:

      Nothing like making a blanket statement! I am a New Yorker and am neither rude nor relentless. Dealing with all kinds of people help to make one more equipped to deal with life in general. Personalities come in all shapes and sizes and are found on both sides of the counter.

  3. Ann says:

    Living in the Southern Berkshires is too expensive for a job paying even $20/hr, part time, no benefits, especially if that wage is predicated on tips which may or may not be forthcoming. Kids vacationing in the family home in GB don’t need a summer job; their families are wealthy enough for them to have choices about what they do with summer. So you need people from out of town but public transportation is a joke in the Berks, and driving from Pittsfield through Stockbridge summer traffic for the joy of making minimum wage is unattractive. This is what happens when exorbitant real estate prices push out the working and middle classes. This is the town that GB has been setting up for years. Also, not for nothing, two of the owners interviewed here have reputations for being horrible bosses. There’s no mystery or conspiracy or “kids today” here; it’s pretty basic economics of hiring.

    1. Chris says:

      Exactly. Affordable housing, and pay that isn’t a joke. That’s so much why we we hardly see young people here. They have few options and it’s a dead end, and they leave. As they should. Being treated badly in the job is additional icing on the cake.

  4. Stephen Cohen says:

    I think the most telling thing about the summer labor market for students is my experience and most others my age. Many years ago we were able to work during the summer and earn $1,500 to $2,000. I did this by working at various jobs at resorts in the Catskills and the Berkshires. The hours were often long and varied, but it was a rite of passage to some extent, and it was fun also since many of us met friends we have kept over the years. The earnings from the summer allowed us to pay our tuition and expenses at college, colleges such as expensive ivy leagues to less expensive state schools.
    Judging from the article, it seems employers today are proud that some of their summer employees make $20 an hour. Most obviously make less. Over a 40 hour week, that is $800, before tax. Assuming the net take home is about $600, over a three month season of twelve weeks (assuming the employee can work that long before having to go back to school), the student will have $7,200.
    Tuition costs and living costs at schools today typically range from $30,000 to over $60,000. The numbers speak for themselves. Wages have not kept up with the cost of education and living.

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      Hi Steve. You make some good points. Bear in mind, however, that over the last 25-30 years, college tuitions and fees have risen at twice the rate of inflation.

    2. David says:

      Well, said, Steve…But the article doesn’t refer at all to the cost of living here (esp. SoCo). A few readers have acknowledged this, and the dwindling population, but i believe it is key to why younger people/familes can’t last too long here. High property taxes and high rents coupled with mediocre income make it hard for anyone to get some ‘traction’ on their life path around here. Unless one is content to reside with parents, couch-surf or rent-share, it’s gonna be a tough go for employers to find ‘committed’ and engaged help.

  5. Paul says:

    I’m surprised that the focus of the article is only on students. What’s wrong with adults or seniors to fill the employment gaps?

    1. mary says:

      It’s bad enough to have students in these servile positions but to ask adults and seniors to be so degraded is deplorable.

      1. DB says:

        Got some hate on your plate?
        Being in the service industry is not a degrading place to be. We have served the locals and second homers for more than 25 years. We have met and befriended many locals and folks from N.Y. and Boston in our years. We are treated extremely well as most folks are truly grateful for our hard work and effort.
        Adjust your attitude and change your outlook.
        If you can’t find a satisfying job, maybe you just are looking in the wrong place. Or maybe some folks are already so dissatisfied that nothing will do. And, if you still can’t find your right job, create your own. Think of something you could be passionate about and follow that. I tell my kids that if they can find something they love to do so much they would be happy doing it for free…. follow that passion and get paid to do it!
        However, you must be passionate about something productive. Your passion seems to be very negative and will bring negative results to your life.
        All of you folks who won’t respond to the plethora of help wanted ads should try to change your own outlook. Remember the idea of getting your foot in the door and working your way up. Then others might look upon you as a more interesting, intelligent, and useful person.

      2. Paul Benjoi says:

        And are you suggesting a return to slavery? Your comment is what’s degrading to folks that need work but have ageism to confront.

  6. Ted B. says:

    Trying to live South County and work ??
    Good luck .
    And it doesn’t mention with dealing with customers, especially the ones that think they OWN you !
    And think you a bumpkin !

  7. Craig Okerstrom-Lang says:

    Again the request to the Edge is to only allow full names used for commenters. “Mary, Susan, Ann” could be anyone. Their anonymous-mean criticisms of local business owners mentioned in the this article are baseless. I know them all…it is VERY challenging to run a seasonal business and they are working it the best they can within the strict employment laws in MA.

    The article does not mention the construction trades, which is also experiencing a similar shortage of skilled workers.

    1. John Lynn Jones says:

      Having moved to Great Barrington only three years ago from Hillsdale, I don’t mean to lecture my new neighbors, but Craig (we know each other) is entirely correct. Even I am aware of “cover” first names attached to less than flattering comments. We expect, actually demand, “Full Disclosure” from a variety of institutions, so why should an individual be exempt (yes, an editor can/should, on occasion, protect identities, but the editor knows the facts)?

      John Lynn Jones

      1. Guy says:

        In a small community where we all essentially know each other, there can be social costs to expressing an unpopular opinion. It’s a form of censorship to use that social pressure to suppress those opinions.

        Perhaps you have experienced voting by secret ballot? Is that something that offends your expectations of transparency?

    2. dennis irvine says:

      Craig, Here is an article about the vital role anonymous speech plays-https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity

  8. Tom says:

    Ambitious young people are much more inclined to have their own business these days, whether it’s in tech or a business like construction or specialty farming. So, I think these businesses should seek out older folk looking to supplement their fixed (or dwindling if the Republicans have their way) incomes. Where’s the grandpa baristas?

  9. John says:

    There are really so many government handouts, why should anybody work? That would interfere with peak tanning time , recovering from hangovers and playing with social media…

    I know of many fully capable young folks in the Berkshires who choose handouts in one way or another, than actually doing anything.

    In a liberal democrat environment, nobody really thinks they need to work for what they want or need.

    1. Shawn G. says:

      You are so full of it.
      Please be specific, what government handouts are you referring to? What handouts are “capable young folks” receiving?

  10. Tim says:

    With that said…The Public Market is hiring in West Stockbridge. The A/C is on.. Your breakfast/lunch/dinner is taken care of…You will never be thirsty water coffee is at your finger tips…Parking..No traffic in WS..Groceries at cost..family friendly >you will never miss a kids baseball game,concert ,doctors appointment or court date. 413 232-8595 for immediate consideration.

  11. susan says:

    …… all of the kids in the area know EXACTLY who those terrible bosses are and several seasons of spreading the word have solidified the reputation.
    To be brave and/or desperate enough to actually apply to those jobs can be likened to a Chernobyl worker AFTER the meltdown.

  12. Susan Pettee says:

    I’m afraid I agree with Craig Okerstrom-Lang about the need for requiring commenters to give their full names. Otherwise this comment section may descend to the level of the Boston Globe’s, where a few sensible comments are almost drowned out by trolls and routine ad hominem (or ad feminam) insults.

  13. Tom says:

    I don’t see a need for full names. Judge each comment on it’s merits.

  14. Sean Stephen says:

    The Berkshires is not the only place dealing the seasonal hiring issues, and this problem is nothing new. The Berkshires has its own specific problems when it comes to seasonal hiring.
    We are not destination spot for college students in the summer. College students tend to look to places like Cape Cod and the Islands which tend to be more attractive, for obvious reasons. Those places have the same problem we have here, and hire foreign workers to fill positions. The hiring pool may be greater but employers still have problems with reliability and training. That is the nature of summer employment.
    The Berkshires on the other hand relies more local high school and college students. Most of these people are living at home and looking to make some spending money as well as some money to bring back to school. Most local business owners are not going to pay a new hire over $11.00 per hour for what is essentially temporary work. If they work out well higher pay is certainly in order and return the next.
    What tends to help with seasonal employment is to provide a work environment that fun, challenging, satisfying. Not an easy thing to do when working in retail, restaurants, and landscaping and the like. Yes, there are customers who will never be happy with what you do to help them. That means the owner or manager needs to step in to help and turn it into a learning experience for the young employee. Besides making money these young employees are looking for experience, and one the best life experiences is how deal with people who will never be happy with whatever you do. The next time they run into person like this will hopefully have another tool which help them in that situation, and may find some satisfaction and be proud of themselves for handling the situation well.
    As to providing a fun work working environment that depends upon the business. On thing I have found is employers must be flexible with scheduling. It’s the summer kids, want to have fun. Providing scheduling well in advance and giving them input is a pretty simple and easy thing to do. This also will clarify expectations in advance and everyone will know what is expected of them. A fun place to work is what everyone wants. It is up to the business owner to create that environment in their particular situation. But I find that trust and respect go a long way in making assumer job fun.

  15. Maggie Mitchell says:

    I was recently shopping at Staples in GB, the young man who rang up my purchases had the right attitude: if you can’t find the work you love, its best to love the work you have and give it your best effort. In this town of highly educated and enlightened beings, our ego’s still get in the way and trip us up!

    I volunteer as a waitress at the Guthrie Center and work for free, the same people come here from NY and NJ, when I treat them with kindness and respect they reciprocate. It’s not about the work you do, it’s about the attitude you bring with you.

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