Summer is coming, and help is wanted on Cape Cod.
“From time immemorial, Cape Cod employers have had to deal with labor shortages in the high season,” said David Augustinho, executive director of the Cape & Islands Workforce Investment Board.
It’s hiring season on Cape Cod. It happens every year in the spring, just before the season for tourists, and this year some of the bigger business owners with seasonal businesses on the Cape are saying they cannot find enough local workers.
Bob Maffei, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors of Mashpee, said he adds 30 to 40 employees every spring. “There’s not a lot of people applying. We’re spending money like crazy on the radio, and looking on Craigslist,” he said.
“It’s extremely difficult to find locals anymore,” said William Zammer, owner of Cape Cod Restaurants Inc., which operates five restaurants on the Cape. Zammer said the trend has been going on for a long time. Zammer hires 150 seasonal people every year.
“I would love to have more local people come work for us,” said Zammer. “I can’t find them.”
“Across the board, everybody has the same issues,” said Augustinho. “And they’re very creative in how they meet their needs.”
“You’re talking about a hotel that has been closed down,” said Ken Smith, vice president of Red Jacket Resorts, which has five properties on the Cape and hires 400 seasonal employees. At one of his properties, “for example, there are two year-round employees, a manager and an assistant manager. And then, it’s just like turning on a boiler,” he said.
Everything heats up fast.
Each year in the spring on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Augustino said somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 jobs are added.
Augustinho said there is an even higher rate of seasonal employment on the islands than on the Cape,
On the Cape, he estimated there is about a 20 percent increase in employment that begins each spring. “We are much more of a year-round economy than we were 10 or 15 years ago,” said Augustinho. “Now we have pockets of seasonality… Hyannis and the Upper Cape are nowhere near as seasonal as the Outer Cape.”
Still, he said, there are plenty of seasonal businesses across the Cape looking for employees. And, he said, a big source of those employees has changed over the years.
“When I was in college, I came here every summer,” said Smith. “Me and three other guys rented a small little Cape. For whatever reason, it doesn’t happen today,” he said.
“Years ago,” said Augustinho, “everybody remembers when a college student could come here, stay here with a group of friends, work for the summer and still have some money for books and to knock a little off of tuition. In large part, because of housing, that is not as possible as it once was.”
And Zammer said that that students face the dilemma of, “If they are working, the amount of money they make goes against their student aid.”
Matthew Lee, a corporate immigration attorney who helps several businesses on the Cape process the legal paperwork to help foreign workers get H2B visas, is plugged into parts of the Cape hiring scene, and he said students are often looking for resume-building internships rather than an entry level job.
“They can no longer write on their resume that they worked the summer scooping ice cream,” said Lee, a partner of Tocci & Lee LLC, a human resource law firm with offices in Centerville, Boston and London.
With a student aid disincentive, increasingly expensive housing, and a need to build resumes, there are fewer college kids coming to the Cape to look for summer jobs.
Yet, every year, those jobs still need to be filled.
“We like to hire high school kids, 16, 17 years old, and keep them through high school and college,” said Smith of Red Jacket Resorts. “If we can find that, it’s a home run,” he said.
Red Jacket Resorts, with 500 total rooms, needs 400 seasonal employees, said Smith. The company has 30 year-round employees in management and central reservations, he said.
Smith said 70 percent of Red Jacket’s employees return annually. “We couldn’t survive in this business without loyal employees,” he said. Although the core of his staff is kids from their late teens to early 20s, Smith said he has a diverse staff beyond what he called “first jobbers.” There are also mothers and folks of retirement age, said Smith.
“There’s not folks running around looking for jobs on the Cape,” said Zammer. “I’ve gotten people from homeless shelters and trained them… We get people wherever we can get them from.”
For many Cape businesses, that means looking outside of the country.
“There are a lot of objections to hiring foreign workers,” said Augustinho. “A lot of people think it’s some kind of scam, that these jobs could be going to American workers. But it’s just not the case. When employers are saying, ‘We can’t get American workers to take these jobs,’ they’re not kidding.”
According to Lee, “It’s hard to attract residents of Cape Cod to fill full-time jobs that are seasonal. If I am a resident of Cape Cod, taking a $13 an hour job that doesn’t pay benefits, is not that attractive. Temporary seasonal jobs are not that attractive.”
Augustinho said that there are certain jobs that are available all season on the Cape. “Employers are understaffed chronically in certain positions from now until Columbus Day,” he said. “If you’re willing to be a line cook or a dishwasher, you could find a position from now until Columbus Day.”
While there are workers on the Cape willing to take temporary seasonal jobs, business owners say there are not enough to fill the jobs. And in a time when even low-end employers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are raising their wages nationally, Cape employers say they pay a competitive wage but still cannot find enough workers.
“We offer a great package,” said Maffei. “We offer a 401K with a match, paid time off, you get a uniform. We really do want to be considered a choice employer for somebody that’s career driven. We have fairly high standards, certain qualifiers. We always run into unqualified applicants. What’s exacerbating is that there’s not enough people applying.”
In fact, Maffei, as a landscaping company, had a seasonal problem this winter finding people to help with snow removal. “For the first winter storm, we pulled our hair out. We don’t have a work force to speak of right now on the Cape,” said Maffei.
And now that summer is coming, many businesses are facing shortages again.
“We found that we (on the Cape) are paying higher wages for these positions than most of the rest of the state,” said Augustinho. “But it’s harder to attract people here because of the geography of the region. We are cut off from the rest of the mainland.”
Zammer said, “We are seasonally challenged as well as geographically challenged.”
With that as context, businesses have looked outside of the USA for workers.
According to Lee, there are two programs where businesses get their workers:
– H2B Visas – a temporary seasonal worker program;
– J1 Visas – an visitor exchange program for students enrolled in foreign universities to visit America. They are allowed to work, but that is not the point of the program.
It is the H2B visas, for entry level jobs in areas such as hospitality and retail that is “the sweet spot for the Cape,” said Augustinho.
Zammer said he has been bringing about 80 H2B workers in from Jamaica every year for 20 years. He said he owns property to house his foreign workers, and he considers that a part of doing business on the Cape.
Before getting H2B workers, businesses must prove that all outreach, such as advertising, was unsuccessful in finding American workers, said Augustinho.
Zammer said, “We have to advertise. And we get virtually no response.”
Lee said the H2B process has changed significantly since 2009. Prior to 2009, he said, “the process was simple enough that you didn’t need a lawyer to do it.” Now, he said, “you need an immigration lawyer to process the legal paperwork.” The regulations became so complicated, Lee said, “It took me, as an attorney, a whole season just to see how the Department of Labor interpreted the regulations.”
Zammer said many of his H2B workers are seasonal workers who return year after year
On the other hand, students on a J1 visa are typically in the US for one season, and the actual point of their visa is as a cultural exchange, not to work. Of course, many students from, lately, Eastern Europe, do come to work on the Cape each summer.
“In the mid-90s, you started seeing less college kids coming down here for the summer,” said Smith. “At that time, there was an influx of Irish kids coming over. Now, it’s Eastern Europeans.” He added, “In some ways, we see where the world economy is going in a little microcosm.”
By their very nature, seasonal businesses are hiring at this time of year. To be fair, these are seasonal jobs that mostly pay no benefits. And that’s why, for yet another summer, many foreign workers are needed here. As Lee said, “there is a chronic shortage of seasonal workers on the Cape.”
Augustinho suggested that anyone looking for work on the Cape should make use of career opportunities centers where “there’s a range of services available for free.”
In addition, said Augustinho, “Knock on doors and present yourself to employers. Even if they’re not running ads. At places like hotels, motels, retail outlets, and others – just walk in and you will be pretty much welcomed.”
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— Brian Tarcy