Today’s shortages in workers may become tomorrows shortages in jobs!

The other day, I was reading through threads on a community page on Facebook. In one rather lengthy thread, someone asked why the doors at a particular fast-food restaurant were locked. Of course, there was a long list of comments, with a lot of speculation in the responses. The reality was that the restaurant had no one to come into work that day!

I don’t think that most people understand what this really means. The lack of staff can wreak havoc on a business, but that is usually short-lived – a few days here or there where things aren’t up to par, until a couple of new workers are hired and trained. There may be complaints about the wait time for dinner on a Friday night, or that the service wasn’t as expected, maybe the food wasn’t as good as they last recall. But imagine if you roll up to your favorite restaurant or business and the doors are locked! That was almost unheard of before the pandemic! What was once a rare occurrence, but is fast becoming the norm for many businesses in our area, and all across the country.

Just in the past week or so, I started to see an influx of “help wanted” posts on social media and signs posted in businesses. Today, I saw one for a sub/sandwich shop. They were so desperate for help, they were looking to hire workers as young as 15! So why the desperation?

At a dinner out the other night, I noticed that many of the workers in the restaurant were teenagers. The hostess, most of the waiters and waitresses even some of the kitchen help, were all under 21. Looking back over the summertime, I realized it has been this way since COVID restrictions were lifted and businesses began opening back up. High school and college students had been filling those vacancies, but now they are all returning to school. That means many of them leaving the area, (so are not available to work at all,) and it means that the rest have (or will soon have) a significant decrease in their available hours to work.

If it hasn’t already gotten worrisome for some business owners, with pending mask mandates on the horizon, and the potential for another shut-down, many business owners, who have just been trying to keep their head above water, are about to have what could be their biggest test. There are no signs of federal assistance and the pool of people looking for work is rapidly shrinking.

Another thread I noticed, was a complaint about the cost of a burger, fries, and drink meal. With the increase in costs for both food and labor, it is only natural that the manager/owner has no choice but to pass those additional costs on to the consumer. I have also noticed that at some drive-thru restaurants, the prices aren’t even listed! What appears to be merely an inconvenience to the customer is, in actuality, a much deeper issue for the business owner.

As business owners, we all must make tough decisions. Today, our decisions are even more difficult. I spoke to an owner of a local Italian restaurant a few weeks ago. He said that they are forced to be closed on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. He added that Sundays had historically been one of their busiest days. I asked why, then, had he chosen Sunday as one of the days to close. He answered that he hadn’t “chosen” the days to close at all; he just couldn’t find anyone to work them!

Imagine, waking up one morning and wanting to get up and have breakfast with the family at your favorite breakfast spot. You arrive there to find that the lights are off and no one is there. You head to your next favorite place and find the same thing. After a search, you realize that many places you used to frequent aren’t open. You finally find one that IS open, but all the other families who had the same idea, and just went through the same ordeal are also at that restaurant, so the wait-time is at least 90 minutes. The domino-effect is alive and well!

These days, when we see these signs in the windows and posts on social media, advertising for help, they aren’t just a notification for an employee or two. They are potentially signs of desperation. In many cases, those businesses barely have enough people to operate the business, or are getting dangerously close to that point.

With my own food-service business, I typically had a staff of 25-30 employees operating 7 units. My team consisted of a few high school students and several college students, but the core of my staff were in the “above 30 crowd”. This year, at best, I had 7 employees. Most of those were college students with only 2 who were at least 30 years of age. I could only regularly operate 2 units (maybe 3 on a good day.) That meant I had to make some tough choices for what services I could and couldn’t offer to our customers. We can’t be as available as we used to be. We can’t accommodate all the requests that we get every day. And, I don’t have the staff to do our summertime drive around through our favorite neighborhoods. We had to place minimums on visits to ensure that I made enough on a particular day to cover labor, fuel, and product costs. As business owners, we hope we can cover as much territory as possible, but it always leaves a sinking feeling in your gut when you know that there is a large demand that we just can’t service. We know what that means for our reputations, our relationships with our customers, our “bottom lines,” and ultimately, our abilities to remain in business!

I pray that we don’t look back one day and recount stories to our grandchildren of the by-gone days when we used to “go to dinner” and eat out with family and friends, because it’s a novelty to them, and something we no longer do. I hope that getting dinner out doesn’t just mean going to a drive-thru and bringing it home or sitting on our tailgates, eating our bags of food in the parking lot!

I hope that shopping inside our local stores doesn’t become a thing of the past, and we solely rely on online shopping. I cringe at the thought that ‘shop local’ may come to mean that we no longer go out to walk through stores, but that we shop online at local stores that offer those services.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts about businesses trying to find creative ways to adjust to today’s environment. In fact, I have talked to several business owners who have survived ONLY because they reconstructed their entire business models to now solely offer online services or pick up/delivery services. They were able to reduce overhead by using less labor and in some cases, abandoning their brick-and-mortar stores. Those decisions may have been wise. Those decisions may have saved those businesses, so I am certainly not saying they were the wrong decisions; but I am saying that even those worthy decisions have an effect “downstream.” There is an impact in the larger community, and in some ways we all (whether consumer or business owner, employee or employer) will feel at some point going forward. An empty building means that someone is still having to pay the mortgage but not collecting any rent. The reduction in staff means less people earning wages, and less money circulating in the economy down the road.

When businesses can’t get the staff they need to operate, they may be forced to develop alternative strategies to NEEDING that staff, and sadly that also means that some businesses will just not survive…which means that today’s shortages in workers may become tomorrows shortages in jobs!

So when you see another ‘help wanted’ sign, look closer… it may be a sign of things to come!