BROCKTON — By late summer 2021, the national labor shortage had hit everywhere in the country, and the Brockton area was no exception.
From manufacturing to restaurants to landscaping, business owners in the Brockton area were having trouble finding applicants, and even more trouble getting anyone to show up for their first day of work.
At the time, Brockton was among the municipalities with the highest unemployment rate in the state, with a rate of 8.5%, according to state data. Just three months later, in November 2021, that rate had decreased to 7.2%, meaning many people in Brockton were taking jobs.
But even with more people in Brockton and all over the state taking new jobs, there are still industries for which the labor shortage is raging on.
According to state data, nearly 1,200 fast food jobs have opened in Brockton in the last year. At the same time, over half of all people working those jobs have left the industry or transferred to another job within the industry.
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Similarly, over 600 home health and personal aide worker positions have opened in Brockton in the last year, but over 60% of people in those positions either left the industry or moved to another job within the industry.
The exodus peaks for cashiers and retail positions, with approximately 500 of each of those types of jobs opening in Brockton in the last year, while about 80% of workers in those positions either changed positions in the industry or left the industry.
And then there are the individual small businesses who are feeling the shortage personally.
Scrambling to fill positions
Back in August, Philip Yaitanes, owner of Yaitanes Landscaping in Stoughton, said he’d put out ads for landscaping jobs, both free and paid, on lots of websites in the last five months, but only had two applicants, neither of which returned his calls. He said he was having to turn away customers daily as a result.
Eventually, Yaitanes said, he simply gave up trying to hire anyone for the season, and accepted taking fewer landscaping jobs and having a lower income.
“I thought when the unemployment benefits ran out that people would start calling for jobs, but it didn’t happen,” he said.
Yaitanes said he’s already had to pay workers more in the last few years as minimum wage has increased each year. It’s now at $14.25 in Massachusetts as of Jan. 1, 2022.
“I hear that with the lower paying jobs, people are quitting, so you have to pay more for less work,” he said.
Yaitanes said he’s had to raise his prices to be able to offer higher wages and attract new workers.
Come March, when the landscaping season starts up again, he’ll be hiring for full-time landscaping workers again. He hasn’t come up with any new ideas for hiring, so he said he’ll simply hope for the best.
“There was nobody who wanted to work this year,” he said. “Hopefully, there’ll be a change for 2022.”
But landscaping isn’t the only industry still affected by the labor shortage.
Existing staff fills the gap — but at a high cost
Stoughton resident Larry Sauer is the CEO of the League School of Greater Boston in Walpole — a private special education school for young people with autism. The school currently serves 102 students as young as 7 years old and as old as 22, and provides residential serves as well as schooling.
Sauer said he’s been hiring for a range of positions, from residential staff to assistant teachers to special education teachers, and currently has 20 positions open. But despite his best efforts, he said, he’s had a hard time filling these positions, especially residential staff positions.
“The residential department has never been fully staffed, and that’s not unusual in the industry,” he said. “It’s always been a hard position to sell, but it’s just really been exacerbated by the pandemic. Those are some of the entry level positions, lower paid positions, so filling them has just become extremely difficult at this time.”
Sauer said the school’s residential staff positions start at $17.95 an hour, which is a higher wage than many similar positions in the industry, but right now that’s not enough to attract workers.
Especially with restaurants and other lower paying industries increasing wages to attract workers because of the staff shortage, he said, some potential staff would rather work with food or in retail rather than special needs children.
“There’s a lot of competition in the field, and working with children with special needs is not a job for everybody,” he said. “It can be challenging. Sometimes our students can be aggressive, so it takes the right person to fill the positions.”
Sauer said it’s also difficult to find licensed teachers, especially for special education teachers, as the school can’t compete with public schools for salaries and pensions.
So far Sauer has tried offering recruitment bonuses for staff that refer new workers, sign-on bonuses and increased advertising, but nothing has worked.
“We are really just trying everything that we can think of to get people to come in,” he said.
Now, Sauer said, the school is looking at bumping up other benefits, such as tuition reimbursement for college classes, in an attempt to sweeten the deal.
So far, he said, the school has been able to maintain its normal staff to student ratios, but it’s been very difficult to do so, especially when staff members become sick with the coronavirus and have to go on leave for weeks.
As a result, current residential staff has had to work lots of overtime, which wears them down.
“Back when the pandemic started, we closed our school for five months and did teaching remotely, but the residences were open the entire time. So [residential staff] never really got any kind of a break,” he said.
“They’ve really done heroic work during this time.”
At this point, all Sauer and Yaitanes can do is try to think up new ways to attract workers and hope for the best.
Enterprise staff writer Susannah Sudborough can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @k_sudborough. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Enterprise today.