State’s workforce shortage shows no signs of abating

By: - July 14, 2021 6:15 am
A black and white help wanted sign in a window

The lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court on behalf of four people who received federal pandemic benefits. (Mario Tama | Getty Images)

This story was updated July 14, 2021 at 10:30 a.m. to include comments from Gov. Chris Sununu’s office.

The early end of generous federal unemployment benefits was supposed to mitigate hiring challenges. It hasn’t, or at least not much. “We’re hiring” signs still hang everywhere, nearly a month after Gov. Chris Sununu ended all unemployment benefits for nearly 9,600 people and reduced them by $300 a week for others.

“When we heard (federal) unemployment was ending, it was like ‘Yes!,’” said Bridget McKerley, director of human resources for the Duprey Companies, which owns four hotels and the Grappone Conference Center in Concord. “But as it got close . . .  it was, ‘Why is no one calling me back?’” 

McKerley, who is trying to fill 15 positions, said the staff shortage is forcing the company to leave hotel rooms vacant just as tourism is heating up. “It could not be a worse time,” she said.

Experts said hiring challenges predate the pandemic but have become more dire as businesses try to get back on track after 15 months of limited income.  

They point to a dearth of younger workers; lack of affordable child care and housing; too few skilled workers for fast-growing fields like health care and manufacturing; and employees rethinking work-life balance. They even cite the new restriction on teaching divisive concepts, such as systemic racism. 

The Business and Industry Association, which represents 400 members in a variety of industries, supported the early end of federal unemployment benefits and opposed the divisive concepts legislation, citing the hiring challenges both times. 

“I don’t think anyone thought (ending federal unemployment early) was going to be the single solution to end the hiring problem,” said David Jouvet, senior vice president for public policy at the association. “There are hiring problems around the country, and New Hampshire is not immune to that. One solution is that we need to make sure that New Hampshire is viewed as a positive state to move to. (The divisive concepts legislation) doesn’t help portray the state as open and inclusive, not only for millennial- and minority-owned businesses, but for employees that may be thinking of moving here.”

The governor’s office believes the changes to unemployment benefits have made a difference. Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt said unemployment claims dropped nearly 50 percent just between the time Sununu announced applicants would once again be required to look for work and the June 19 end of federal aid. Claims have dropped further since that aid ended.

“Given it is a job-seekers market, there will naturally be job vacancies as employers compete to recruit workers through bonuses, flexible hours, et cetera,” Vihstadt said.

Unemployment claims have been dropping in New Hampshire over the last few months, and were down again last month by 19 percent, according to the state Department of Employment Security. But that hasn’t translated into the new hires employers expected. 

Economics professor Patricia M. Anderson of Dartmouth College cited both a lack of affordable child care and workers who are re-evaluating their lives. 

“I think there are a lot of people taking the pandemic to really take stock of what they want to do with their careers and are making changes,” she said. “And it seems like part of what’s going on right now is in fact a kind of mismatch problem where people want different jobs and employers need workers but not everybody knows who’s available.”

Daniel Masera, who has owned Plymouth Ski and Sports for 30 years, was among those counting the days until the federal unemployment ended June 19. But hiring has hardly improved since then. No one has responded to his Indeed job posting. His “help wanted” sign has generated inquiries but few hires. 

Masera said job candidates want a higher wage than he can pay and don’t want to work for it. “I thought it was going to help a little bit,” he said. “But now I don’t know.”

Unable to solve the systemic challenges related to housing and skilled labor, employers are experimenting with creative – and generous – incentives.

Nurses are being offered $10,000 signing bonuses. Many employers have increased wages and vacation time, and offer free training and a paycheck for attending classes. One employer pitched his remote positions as a chance to stay home with pets and avoid the chore of choosing work outfits every day. 

At the Duprey Companies, McKerley and her team have been brainstorming ways to fill their positions. But they are also putting as much thought into retaining the employees they have. Workers are paid bonuses for referring new hires, and getting a bump in wages and vacation time. They are also awarded gift cards to local businesses for a job well done. The company started a free telehealth service that provides employees access to a nurse practitioner every day. And McKerley is working now on a new sabbatical program that will allow those employees who are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week a block of several weeks off with pay. 

“People have been getting out of the hospitality world,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of searching for different incentives and programs to make hospitality fun again.”

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.