- September 4, 2021
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Everywhere you look in Athens — on storefronts, social media and in advertisements — businesses are saying the same thing: now hiring.
Labor shortages are currently all across the country and Athens is no different.
The most acute labor shortage in Athens has been in the leisure and hospitality industry, where restaurants and bars continue to be in need of workers. At locally-owned burrito chain Barberitos, which opened its eighth Athens eatery in June, the staff struggles to support the demand for their food.
“Business is great, but we’re still suffering,” said founder and CEO Downing Barber. “We’ve got people working double shifts and pulling down 60 hours a week just to make it work. At the Prince Ave. location, I almost had to go in there and start rolling burritos.”
As the local economy continues to rebound from 2020, the confidence in returning to work hasn’t matched the confidence in spending. Many Athens area employers are hopeful that vaccines will be the answer.
Barber spoke about the effect that the labor shortage has had on the mental health of employers and staff who managed to survive the closures and loss of revenue that happened in 2020. Barber said that giving employees adequate time off has been key to retaining staff.
According to USA Today, the American labor market saw its largest hiring surge in July, with employers adding 943,000 jobs despite a spike in COVID-19 cases brought on by the Delta variant.
In Athens-Clarke County, the over-the-year change in non-farm employment was 3.2 percent from July 2020 to July 2021 according to an Aug. 20 report from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The construction industry was seen as an essential service when last year’s shutdowns began happening, but the workforce in Georgia was not immune to the state-wide labor shortage. A lack of help in skilled trades and project management has directly impacted work schedules, created a supply chain disruption and caused a spike in prices.
“Our industry is in need of people in just about every sector that you can imagine,” said Mike Dunham, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Georgia, a professional trade association that represents the commercial construction industry statewide. Dunham said that his primary general contractor in Athens reported similar issues and concerns that Dunham has been hearing from others across the state.
Though the construction business is fortunate in that so much work is done outdoors, Dunham said that the need for truck drivers and equipment operators is particularly high, and health concerns are a high priority given the long-term nature of most projects.
Does the influx of University of Georgia students in the fall mean that more people are coming to Athens in need of a job? Barber described himself as “blessed” to be a business owner in a college town and noted the labor pool typically sees an increase in August and September.
Barber did note that students who are afraid of falling ill with COVID-19 are less willing to seek employment at places like Barberitos where they do come in contact with customers, but he believes the increase in vaccinations that allowed businesses to open back up will also give people more confidence to come back to work.
In Dunham’s industry, where college internships often lead to administrative and other office positions, University of Georgia students have helped fill those positions for the past two summers. Dunham expects the FDA approval of vaccines to result in more companies requiring contractors to have a vaccinated workforce, which he sees as a move forward.
With smaller businesses, the issue of competitive pay would still be part of the conversation even if the health concerns disappeared. Milledge Avenue Taco Stand co-owner Mark Opel said that the hiring sign he put on the door when the restaurant reopened in January has yet to come down
“I believe in a living wage,” said Opel, who emphasized a desire to retain staff and treat them well. “When you can run things smoothly and keep morale in a good place, it’ll come across to the customers, and that translates into profit we can share in the form of raises and incentives.”