Low jobless rate a ‘double-edged sword’

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PORTLAND — Record low unemployment in Maine reflects a strong economy.

But it has some business owners struggling to find the workers they need.

Quincy Hentzel, chief executive of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the historically low level of unemployment provides options to workers and creates more competition between employers with jobs to fill.

“Employees have a lot of options, which is great – they have the advantage of being in a buyer’s market,” Hentzel said. “Employers, however, struggle to find the best talent. The competition is really intense. This type of environment forces employers to be more creative in what they offer their employees.”

Maine’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in May, which marked a record 30 months under 4 percent unemployment in the state, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“The summer tourism season provides plentiful opportunities for Maine workers to find jobs best suited to their skills,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a June press release. “Our record-low unemployment means employers are searching for applicants.”

Cumberland County had the lowest unemployment rate, 2.4 percent, according to the press release.

Hentzel said the tight labor market is affecting all industries in the region, but the labor challenges “seem to be hitting the hospitality sector the hardest” this summer.

Bill Dunnigan, who owns the two Cia Cafe locations in South Portland and Saco with his wife Jeannie, said they’ve had to scale back their hours by about an hour each day because they couldn’t find enough help, and couldn’t keep filling the gaps themselves.

“This year has been quite the challenge – we’ve had to reduce our hours in both locations …,” Dunnigan said June 29, adding that cooks have been the hardest position to fill.

Matt Chappell, owner of Gather restaurant in Yarmouth, said that while he’s not having trouble finding wait staff, “skilled line cooks are challenging to find.”

Chappell said he knows many other restaurant owners “in the same boat” who are “really scrambling to find that skilled line cook.”

“We are fighting over a limited supply,” Chappell said. “It really is a crisis in our industry. … We’re the victim of our own success.”

Chappell said he tries to create a “work-family atmosphere” and provide benefits and competitive wages to attract and keep skilled workers.

“I could be open more if I found more people, and that’s a frustrating feeling,” he said.

Tom Bartell, executive director of the Windham Economic Development Corp, described low unemployment as a “double-edged sword” that’s “been tough on some folks.”

“There’s a lot of need for – maybe not full-time people – but part time,” he said. “… The economy is really doing well, sales are doing well, (but) without employees and without a pool of labor, you’re stifling growth.”

Wally Staples, owner of Wally J. Staples Builders in Brunswick, said finding skilled carpenters is a challenge in general, and the tight labor market has exacerbated the problem.

“In the 25 years I’ve been in business, no question, it’s the most challenging time to find skilled tradespeople,” said Staples, who has about 10 in-house carpenters and would prefer to have 15.

Staples said he has a backlog of 6-12 months of projects and has seen a decline of young people going into the trades. He relies on carpenters who are mostly in their 40s and 50s.

“It’s been a challenge even before the low unemployment,” he said. “You’d think that people would be knocking the door down, but it’s just not that way right now.”

Staples said he has a good retention rate and offers his employees paid vacation and health care, and has had no problem hiring administrative staff.

Kevin Murphy, director of safety and human resources at Grondin Construction, said the Gorham-based company of roughly 145 employees is also having trouble finding skilled laborers, and has had to increase in-house training to build its own workforce.

Murphy said Grondin has put an emphasis on supporting vocational education, including an excavation demonstration this year for students at Lake Region High School, in an effort to help students understand the opportunities and challenges of working in the trades.

The crunch for construction labor has affected the municipal hiring process, too. In Windham Town Manager Tony Plante’s most recent report to the Town Council, he noted the town has had to extend or re-post job openings in the Public Works Department.

“We have seen some slowdown in applications for these kinds of positions as construction has gotten busier,” Plante said.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he’s experienced the two-sided nature of low unemployment as both a legislator and business owner.

“I hear it all the time from business people,” said Diamond, who represents the towns of Baldwin, Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish and Windham. He also owns a medical staffing business, where he is offering $500 signing bonuses to new workers.

“It’s a good problem, because everybody is working,” Diamond added. “I guess I haven’t seen it like this in a long time.”

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Mechanics are in demand at U-Haul on Marginal Way in Portland, where signs seeking skilled employees are a common sight.

Cia Cafe in South Portland and Saco has had to reduce its hours, co-owner Bill Dunnigan said, because the business has had difficulty finding employees, particularly cooks.

Pizza Time on Main Street in Westbrook is one of the businesses in the city that is looking for workers. Other businesses that were advertising a need for help late last week include Sherwin Williams, Amatos, Great Falls Marketing, Bisson Moving and Storage, Mullens Driving School and MAS Medical Staffing.

Several help wanted signs sit in front of the Big Apple convenience store and CN Brown Energy on Route 302 in Windham.

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