Traverse City businesses find it difficult to fill jobs

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — Nick Trahair of the AmericInn in Traverse City is in a unique situation: He only needs two more employees to fill his summer staff positions.

AmericInn general manager Nick Trahair has two summer job openings. Other northern lower peninsula employers need far more staff.

He is fortunate. With an increase in available jobs, positions are increasingly difficult to fill — there are more open positions for workers in the area than there are workers available, business officials and jobs experts say.

"We have a great staff," Trahair said. "We've gotten creative with incentives. We offer good wages with summer bonuses and production goals. We do lunch for employees, sometimes we have ice cream on hot days, and we've played miniature golf next door. We even have beach picnics. We do a lot for our employees to keep morale up."

The search for workers is ongoing, and at times difficult for businesses in this area that rely on the summer tourist trade. Some businesses even have had to lean more heavily on workers from other countries to fill critical positions.

"With 36 years in this business, I've never seen anything like this," said Jane Butzier, Northwest Michigan Works manager. "As the economy grows there are jobs going unfilled. We don't have the people to fill the positions."

The reasons for the dearth of workers are difficult to define, according to Laura Oblinger, executive director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. "There are a lot more businesses in the area, and people are busier. More business means more staff. They are all indicators of a stronger economy."

Also, an improving state economy and a jobless rate that matches the national average means it's easier for workers — many of them young — to find jobs closer to home instead of decamping to tourist areas such as Traverse City for seasonal jobs.

She said businesses are using job fairs, online media, work incentives, social media and word-of-mouth to fill positions.

Noah Wilson, 20, of Traverse City, is working two jobs this summer: one as a personal trainer at the new Grand Traverse Bay YMCA, and another at Burritt's Meats.

"I'm working to raise money for a car and tuition," said Wilson, who has completed one year at Northwestern Michigan College, and plans to transfer to Grand Valley State University in another year. "I had no problem finding work."

Another student from Traverse City, Drew Gorton, 19, is also working two jobs, working for a charter flying service and doing landscaping on the side.

"I want to be a pilot and have no problem finding work. I have a lot of buddies who have helped me with good jobs, and I have good contacts," he said.

Gorton is studying at the Aviation Department at Northwestern Michigan College, completing his degree program this fall.

No relief in sight

The projections of the demand for workers into next year in the 10-county northwest Michigan area that includes Traverse City has increased steadily, according to the Michigan Department of Energy's Bureau of Labor Market Information.

For restaurant cooks, demand is projected to increase 11 percent, sales staff, an estimated 13 percent, and construction laborers, 12 percent.

"We have 1,754 jobs on our 10-county website, we are getting calls constantly and we simply cannot fill the openings," Butzier said.

Traverse City's jobless rate is a bit better at 5.4 percent than the state's 5.5 percent May rate.

Added to the problem of a seasonal workforce is the lack of migrant workers, who used to flock to the region to harvest cherries, strawberries, apples and grapes.

"Our wineries — our entire agricultural community — are using more local workers," Butzier said. "Seasonal employees are job-attached, finding good jobs that they return to each year."

Butzier said employers have to be more creative, like Trahair, at attracting workers.

"It's a completely different situation from our past years," she said. "We can't manufacture people. It's going to be a tough summer."

Leslye Wuerfel, general manager and co-owner of the Traverse City Beach Bums, a minor league professional baseball team, would agree. She cannot find housekeepers for their stadium suites.

"Hiring people this spring is terrible. I have posted the jobs at $10 an hour and have had no interest," Wuerfel said. "The world has changed in the past 10 years."

She said she has posted job openings on Facebook and Craigslist, and garnered only one applicant.

Other properties in northern Michigan have also become creative in finding workers.

"In our region it is really, really hard to find good workers. We've changed our strategy in the past two years," said Amy Hopkins, human resources manager at West Bay Beach Resort, a Holiday Inn property.

"We try to fill all openings with local workers, and have attended two job fairs this year. We have found some great workers," Hopkins said.

Emilija Klipa, who came from Serbia to work at West Bay Beach Resort on a visa, said her “biggest goal is to learn to speak good English.”

Looking overseas

But when there are jobs left unfilled, the hotel calls upon the nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange. They have gotten student workers from around the world since 1947.

When finalists are found, West Bay Beach interviews the students online via Skype. If they're hired, they come to the United States on a J-1 visa.

A J-1 offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through programs overseen by the U.S. State Department. Hotels in Traverse City, such as the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and the Great Wolf Lodge, also hire workers with J-1 visas.

"This year, we have brought in 34 students from Taiwan, Serbia, Turkey and Romania for the summer," Hopkins said.

The workers from overseas receive the same pay as local workers.

As an incentive to the workers, the hotel has rented three houses within walking distance of the facility, completely furnishing them so the students can have a safe, comfortable place to live while working in Traverse City.

"The students have made a huge sacrifice to be here and we want them to enjoy their time here. It's an investment for us, as we need their help."

Two students on this year's workforce are Stefan Tomicevic, 22, of Becej, Serbia, and Emilija "Emma" Kilpa, of Belgrade, Serbia. This is their first visit to America and Traverse City.

"So far, so good," said Kilpa, as she worked the outdoor patio bar and food pavilion at the resort.

"When friends of mine who worked in America last year told me about their experiences, I applied. This is a big step. My biggest goal is to learn to speak good English."

Tomicevic also is enjoying his first trip to the United States.

"I am studying economics; two or three of my friends have come to America and I have dreamed of traveling, so I took the opportunity. It's been great so far."

Last year, the hotel employed 18 foreign students, and it was the first summer they have been fully staffed.

The problem of searching for, and hiring, summer help extends up the coast of northwest Michigan.

Peter Fitzsimons, executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitor's Bureau, has found the job market to be difficult for area employers.

"The service industry is struggling. In 2009 when everything slowed down, we lost a lot of qualified workers — construction painters, cooks, skilled trades. Everyone left looking for jobs," Fitzsimons said.

"Now, we are struggling to fill those jobs. I don't quite know what the answer is."

John L. Russell is a freelance writer in Traverse City.