Southwest Florida's employers still face hiring challenges, despite growing labor force

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

On a recent Saturday, shoppers pulled on the door of an Avow Treasures Resale Shop only to find it locked.

The store sat dark and empty — during the usual business hours.

The bargain hunters looked at each other and scratched their heads, then noticed a hand-written note taped to the door that explained it all.

The thrift store on Davis Boulevard, east of Naples, never opened that day because it did not have enough staff to do so.

It wasn't a first. 

It happens all too often, due to Southwest Florida's tight labor market, said Annalise Smith, chief philanthropy officer for Avow, a nonprofit provider of hospice and palliative care, as well as grief and loss support, in Collier County.

"It's been rough," she said.

Looking up:Ritz-branded luxury condos latest in London Bay's growth story

Dig deeper:Florida faces shortage of home health aides now and in the future

Avow, Naples isn't alone. With unemployment so low in Southwest Florida, many other employers are facing the same kind of challenges.

Case in point? A regional job fair Tuesday in Fort Myers drew hundreds of candidates, for thousands of jobs.

Some employers had more luck than others.

'I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel'

Job seekers meet with potential employers at a regional career fair hosted by Career Source Southwest Florida on Tuesday, April 5, 2022 at Suncoast Arena on the FSW campus in Fort Myers.

Mike Biskie, human resources director for B&I Contractors in Fort Myers, said his company's participation in the job fair paid off, allowing it to find hundreds of potential job candidates.

"We had over 200 people that we invited to apply for positions," he said.

B&I installs mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. One of the company's busiest times of the year is nearing, as it does a substantial amount of work on schools, usually when students are on break during summer.

The company has 180 "hard targets" — or jobs — that it's looking to fill ASAP, with others in the waiting. Its needs include drivers and skilled construction workers, such as plumbers, pipefitters, electricians and mechanics.

As for Smith at Avow, she sees the employment and hiring situation getting worse, rather than better, even though the pandemic has eased — and the local workforce has been growing.

Recently, one of Avow's thrift store drivers resigned, and another part-time worker asked for two months of leave this summer to spend time with her grandchildren.

"I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," Smith said.

She's not sure why, but speculates the worsening employment situation for Avow might have something to do with skyrocketing home prices — and rents.

Avow's starting wage is $16.50 an hour, far above the $10 minimum wage, and even part-timers are eligible for health care coverage and other benefits.

A few weeks ago, the organization handed out a $100 stipend to help its employees cover the higher cost of gas.

"We have been really, really good to our staff members," Smith said. "It's not like we're cheaping out and that's why we can't find people." 

In June, Avow plans to open a third resale shop, off U.S. 41 north of Mercato, but it will likely close the others as soon as their leases run out, due to landlord rental increases and the labor crunch, she said.

"If we had enough staff people we would probably prefer to have at least two locations," Smith said. "Three would be optimal."

Avow needs four full-timers and three part-timers for the two locations, plus dozens of volunteers, which have also been in short supply these days.

"We could take another 30 volunteer shifts to fill a week," Smith said.

With the closure of the current stores, she knows the thrift operations will lose customers, but she hopes to gain enough at the new shop to more than make up for it.

Like many other employers, Avow has pulled out all the stops to try to find and keep the workers it needs. 

That includes holding its own job fairs and participating in others as they come along, like the large one held April 5.

The regional fair — one of the biggest in-person events of its kind since the pandemic hit in 2020 — drew more than 80 local employers, reflecting the strength of the demand for workers.

The tip of the iceberg

Job seeker, Kenneth Byer, right,  speaks with Chad Luttrell, center, and Ian Ackerman, left, from Northwestern Mutual at a regional career fair hosted by Career Source Southwest Florida on Tuesday, April 5, 2022 at Suncoast Arena on the FSW campus in Fort Myers.

For Avow, the struggle at its thrift stores is just the tip of the iceberg. It's also having serious trouble hiring and keeping its essential workers, especially registered nurses, said Rebecca Gatian, the chief clinical officer. 

"We are actually searching all over the country to recruit nurses to come to Naples. but the housing situation has been the biggest challenge," she said. "We find people who want to work here and live here, but they can't afford it, so they don't end up coming."

Avow has lost nurses to other industries. Sometimes, they've joined a family business, or started their own, outside of health care, Gatian said.

Currently, the organization has more than 40 open positions, she said, despite offering lucrative sign-on and referral bonuses and amping up its benefits, which now include free health and dental insurance for employees.

Avow's employees are working overtime and the organization has brought in contract workers at times to ensure it can still meet the demands of its patients — and the community, Gatian said.

"The affordable housing crisis has affected us, and not just with the nurses. We have social workers, chaplains and home health aides that have had to leave the area, and those were not traditionally positions that we had a hard time filling," she said.

Some employees who fled the area faced monthly rent increases of as much as $500 to $800, and they had no way of coming up with that kind of money, especially workers in lower-paying positions, such as housekeepers and cooks, Gatian said.

Avow isn't the only local employer with more than 40 jobs to fill. Others with booths at the job fair — hosted by CareerSource Southwest Florida — have just as many or more. Some of them need more than 100 workers.

Organizers and participants weren't sure what to expect from the event.

Before the pandemic hit, such an event might have attracted 1,200 to 1,300 job seekers. This one brought in 500 to 600, which is actually seen as a good showing, considering the super-low unemployment rates across Southwest Florida.

In February, Collier County's unemployment rate stood at just 2.6%, while Lee County's registered at 2.9%,  according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Those numbers were much lower than the statewide rate of 3.3% and the national rate of 3.8% for the same month.

Experts consider 4% full employment, as there are always workers between jobs.

All things considered, Amy Hanna-Eckenrode, the communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida, charged with matching job seekers with employers in the region, said she's happy with the turnout at its most recent career fair, which her agency heavily marketed. 

"That is phenomenal," she said, adding "the way the economy is right now." 

Some of the smaller hiring events held over the past year in the region have attracted few candidates, particularly when they've involved a single business. Some prospective candidates have shown interest in employers at job fairs, only to ghost them afterward.

The crowd at CareerSource's big job fair included high school students, some of whom traveled from other counties for the event, Hanna-Eckenrode said.

More than a dozen educational institutions attended, including colleges, universities and trade schools, offering free career and training advice for in-demand jobs.

'Slowly coming back to work'

While many employers — across many industries —  have faced worker shortages, there are signs that the situation is improving, for at least some of them, Hanna-Eckenrode said.

"It is easing a bit," she said. "People are slowing coming back to work."

That includes people who might have taken a hiatus from work or lost their jobs because of COVID, then dropped out of the labor force for a while.

Despite the positive signs, there's still a big void.

"It's not quite over yet," Hanna-Eckenrode said.

When the labor shortage might end is anybody's guess, with so many businesses expanding in and moving into the state, including Southwest Florida.

"I wish I could predict that," Hanna-Eckenrode said. "I think we all do. I think we're all in that same boat."

Statistics from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity show the size of the workforce in Lee and Collier counties combined grew by 20,552 over the year in February. 

Lee's count rose by 13,568 to 366,112, while Collier's increased by 6,984 to 187,319.

Both counties have larger labor forces than they did in February 2020, before the pandemic hit.

During a media briefing about the state's latest employment data, Adrienne Johnston, a chief economist for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said it appears that the labor market will continue to improve in Florida, based on trends showing more people are entering the labor force statewide. Those people include new residents to Florida, recent high school and college graduates and those returning to the workforce.

"When the labor force increases, it is often a signal that people are optimistic about employment opportunities, and are choosing to enter the job market," Johnston said.

She cautioned that "there's a lot of churn happening right now," in Florida's labor market.

"People are still trying to connect into the labor market," she said. "And we have people both moving out of current jobs, but then also reentering into the labor force, and that's across all industries."

Florida lost 1,282,500 jobs from February to April 2020, largely because of layoffs tied to the coronavirus pandemic. The state has since gained back 1,434,500 jobs.

"We're right back where we were," before the pandemic began, Johnston said, "which is a good sign, and it means that we're seeing strong growth, and we really don't see that slowing down anytime soon. To have more people in our labor force now than we had two years ago, after what we just experienced, is extremely positive."

In February, state data shows the Fort Myers metro — or Lee County — gained 13,800 private-sector jobs over the year, an increase of 5.9%. The industry adding the most jobs? Professional and business services, up by 4,000.

As for the Naples metro — or Collier County — it added 7,900 jobs in the private sector over the same year, an increase of 5.6%. The tourism industry saw the most gains, growing by 3,500 jobs. The travel and tourism sector was hit hard during the pandemic.

Service industry feeling the pinch

When it comes to worker shortages, the service industry, in particular, is feeling the pinch.

The labor crunch is especially evident in health care — and in retail and restaurants, with so many "Now Hiring" signs hanging inside and outside of chain and independent stores across Southwest Florida and the state.

State data shows there were 451,919 online ads posted for jobs in Florida in February, and positions for registered nurses topped the list, with 18,394.

Here are the top five employers in Southwest Florida, when it comes to job postings: 

  • Lee Health: 2,146
  • The Hertz Corp.: 334
  • Florida Gulf Coast University: 211
  • Gartner: 203
  • Advance Auto Parts: 132

Others with more than 100 postings? Millennium Physician Group (128), McDonald's Corp. (127), Dollar Tree (126), NeoGenomics (115), Herc Rentals (111) and Chico's FAS (107).

The shortage of workers in Southwest Florida and statewide is in part due to so many baby boomers retiring, and not having enough younger workers to replace them, Hanna-Eckenrode said. 

"They say there are approximately two jobs for every employee there is at this time," she said, "and the employers are feeling it. The businesses are feeling it definitely." 

Small businesses can be at a real disadvantage, especially those who can't afford to pay higher wages and offer more benefits like the larger corporations can, said Amir Ferreira Neto, an economics professor and director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University.

He described the current worker shortage as an "interesting phenomenon," driven by several factors.

"Many people re-evaluated their life once they were forced to stay at home, changing preferences regarding life-work balance. As a consequence, we have been seeing much more quits and business applications," Neto said.

At least a few companies saw better-than-expected results from their participation in the regional job fair.

"The job fair was a success and recruiting went very well," said Ben Sylvia, manager of talent engagement, for Fort Myers-based NeoGenomics. "We're settling into our new normal pretty well here."

The company, a cancer-focused testing and research lab, has 40 to 50 jobs available at its larger and fancier headquarters off Alico Road, including fully and partially remote positions.

'Building relationships and circling back'

Newly completed NeoGenomics’ global headquarters at 9490 NeoGenomics Way – off Alico Road – in Fort Myers.

As a result of its participation in the job fair, NeoGenomics received about a dozen applications, with more expected to trickle in over the next week or two, Sylvia said.

"A lot of job fairs are about building relationships and circling back," he said. 

Like Avow, NeoGenomics has beefed up its benefits to attract and retain employees. The company, for example, has started to help its employees pay off their student loans.

B&I has adopted several strategies to deal with the labor shortage: paying overtime, extending job completion dates and bringing in employees from other markets in Florida where it operates.

The company, which has seen no impact from the pandemic, added more than 100 jobs in 2020 alone across all of its operations, to keep up with a frenzy of commercial construction, spurred by Florida's continued population growth, Biskie said.

B&I's largest source for new employees comes from internal referrals, accounting for nearly 60% of its new hire count, he said, which is in part due to its attractive referral bonuses.

The job fair attracted a wide spectrum of job seekers, which the company probably couldn't have reached on its own, with such ease.

"We were pleasantly surprised that there was a big diversity," Biskie said.

Looking ahead, CareerSource  Southwest Florida has another hiring event coming up, geared toward veterans.

The Veteran Expo will be held in conjunction with Florida Gulf Coast University on April 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in its Cohen Ballroom.

Attendees will not only be able to learn about career opportunities, but educational benefits, support services and other helpful resources for local veterans.

The event is specially designed to meet the needs of post 9/11 veterans, but any veteran can attend.

More than 20 employers will participate including Amazon, Arthrex, Cintas, the Collier County Sheriff's Office, Envirostruct and FineMark National Bank & Trust. 

More than 100 people have already registered to attend.

Dave Berman, business editor at FLORIDA TODAY, contributed to this story.