And the hurt goes on: Region's labor shortage could get worse before it gets better

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News
  • While Southwest Florida faced serious worker shortages before COVID hit, the pandemic has only worsened the region's labor crunch, as it has the nation's, for myriad reasons.
  • At times, government data has shown more available jobs than people looking for work in some parts of the five-county region, including Lee and Collier.
  • Employers, she said, continue to report that the high cost and short supply of housing are keeping some out-of-town candidates from accepting or even considering job offers that require them to live in Southwest Florida.

The struggle to find workers in Southwest Florida has no easy solution — and it could get worse before it gets better. 

That's the fear of local business owners, advocates and experts in the new year.

While Southwest Florida faced serious worker shortages before COVID hit, the pandemic has only worsened the region's labor crunch, as it has the nation's, for myriad reasons.

In the Know:'We have a hiring crisis' in SWFL. How will this affect you?

More:SWFL's low unemployment rates reflect tightening labor market

At times, government data has shown more available jobs than people looking for work in some parts of the five-county region, including Lee and Collier.

In November, for example, Collier had more than 7,600 job postings online, and roughly 5,600 unemployed workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In that same month, Lee had more than 17,600 advertised positions, with about 12,700 workers not employed.

Applicant Hannah Kessling speaks to a representative of SOMA at a career fair held at The Naples Players at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

Lee and Collier have been some of the fastest-growing counties in the nation over the past decade. Since COVID, Southwest Florida has been a state leader in drawing new residents.

Yet, the surge in new residents doesn't seem to have put a dent in the problem. 

"Our retirement rate is brisk and we don't have the labor force we need moving to the area to fill those vacancies. Some of that is stemming from the cost of living here," said Melanie Schmees, director of business and economic research at the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.

Employers, she said, continue to report that the high cost and short supply of housing are keeping some out-of-town candidates from accepting or even considering job offers that require them to live in Southwest Florida.

Meanwhile, new jobs continue to sprout. 

Collier County, for example, had 30,000 unique — or new — job postings online from January to August of 2021, Schmees said. 

In case you missed it:

General manager of the Del Mar restaurant Rick Giannasi speaks to an applicant at a career fair held at The Naples Players at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

Full employment

Experts consider 4% full employment, as there are always workers between jobs. Rates in Southwest Florida are below that magic number.

In November, Collier County had one of the lowest unemployment rates in Florida — at 2.9%, according to the latest report by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. 

Lee County's jobless rate wasn't much higher, registering at 3.5%. 

The statistics for December won't be out until later this month.

"I have heard that it is going to get worse," Schmees said.

By the way:Jobless rates fell across Southwest Florida in November

Southwest Florida is now in peak season, when workers are usually needed the most, especially in service industries, such as tourism, retail and health care.

Season typically runs from November to April, drawing tourists, as well as part-time residents, looking to escape the snowstorms and frigid weather up north.

Many factors are driving the labor shortage in Southwest Florida. Those factors include a growing gig economy and a rising entrepreneurial spirit,  Schmees said.

Local employers have shared that they're losing workers to the gig economy. Some of those lost employees now work for such companies as Uber and Grubhub because they offer a more flexible schedule, Schmees said, unlike the traditional, 9-to-5 job.

In at least one case, a business lost a worker to Twitch, she said, because he believed he could make more money from the online platform playing video games. Users of the platform can make money live-streaming their gameplay, or competing in tournaments and other related events.

In 2020, the number of applications to start a business in Collier County grew by nearly 11%, over 2019, further diminishing the labor pool, Schmees said.

"They want to be their own employer," she said. "Who's to say they'll hire people in the future. It may be a home-based business, where they do consulting work." 

The severity of the labor shortage can be felt in many ways across the region, including extended wait times, shorter operating hours and longer shifts for employees.

"Restaurants are closing earlier because they don't have the staff to support the operation," Schmees said. "On some days, some places won't open altogether because there are no employees to run the shop. We are seeing a lot of that." 

"Great Resignation"

Nationally, a record number of workers have been quitting their jobs monthly. The phenomenon, dubbed "The Great Resignation," is blamed on COVID, at least in part, as workers reassess work-life balance.

In Southwest Florida, it's no different, Schmees said, with more workers seeking jobs that are less stressful, demanding and time-consuming, including remote ones that allow them to set their own schedule — and reduce their chances of catching or spreading COVID and their need to wear masks.

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The trend appears to be "here to stay," Schmees said, so more employers are looking for ways to convert traditional jobs to remote ones, where possible, with hopes of expanding their labor pool.

She rattled off other factors affecting the local labor market, such as lower immigration rates, burnout and accumulated wealth by younger residents, who no longer have to work so they avoid it, especially with a more contagious variant of COVID-19 spreading rapidly.

"I will say that I think a lot of these trends existed," Schmees said. "Now, they are just magnified." 

Chris Westley, an economist, professor and dean of the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University in Lee County, agrees.

Chris Westley, Florida Gulf Coast University

He also doesn't see the labor shortage easing anytime soon in Southwest Florida. 

"Absent a recession or black swan event, I expect current trends to continue through 2024," the year of the next presidential election, Westley said. 

"Our region will continue to overheat during the boom, although we will still benefit from capital and labor flows from overregulated and overtaxed states," he said.

COVID has impacted local employment in many significant ways, Westley said, from driving more workers to larger firms that can afford to implement better COVID-related protections to creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs to address new needs and concerns arising from the pandemic. 

"To be positive, the use of technology to produce goods and services and to interact with customers, employees and suppliers will be more intelligent in the future," Westley said.

While some have described the omicron variant of COVID as mild, he expects most local employers to continue looking out for their customers, suppliers and vendors. 

"The market response to COVID has been remarkably adaptive, intelligent and capable of adjusting to pandemic conditions — a heroic outcome that we don’t hear much about because it does not fit COVID narratives glorifying policy responses and policymakers," Westley said. 

Feeling the hurt

The tight labor market is affecting many industries in Southwest Florida. Some are hurting a lot more than others, such as health care.

As of Jan. 7, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, showed Southwest Florida had 22,392 jobs advertised, with 38,930 job candidates. That equates to less than two candidates per job.

Here's a look at the employers with the most openings advertised online, at the end of the first week in January:

  • Lee Health, hospital system, 1,616
  • Community Health Systems, operator of Physicians Regional hospitals, 530
  • Arthrex, medical device manufacturer, 358
  • Florida Gulf Coast University, public university, 310
  • HCA Healthcare, hospital system, 207

The healthcare industry is one of the most challenged when it comes to attracting and retaining workers amid the pandemic. That's evidenced by the countless number of available jobs — and the rising wages and growing value and cost of incentives and perks. 

Registered nurse, or RN, is the most advertised job online in Southwest Florida. Recent data showed more than 1,900 openings for the critical position — far more than for any other.

Kristy Rigot, with Lee Health, addresses the crowd attending a panel discussion during the Workforce Summit presented by the Above Board Chamber of Florida at Harborsided Event Center Thursday afternoon, May 12, 2016. Ricardo Rolon / The News-Press

On average, Lee Health has 50 to 80 new hires each week, said Kristy Rigot, system director for human resources. 

"Lee Health has foundational attraction strategies as well as targeted strategies in place to drive a continuous pipeline of qualified candidates locally, regionally and nationally, depending on the type of position," she said. "Recruiting talent is challenging, given the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as supply and demand in the labor market."

It's difficult to predict whether the labor shortage will get any better this year, Rigot said, in part due to the continuing spread of the newest COVID variant.

"At this point, we expect the situation to be similar to the past year," she said. 

The system's biggest needs are for registered nurses, certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, advanced practice providers, medical technicians and therapists.

Employees work extra hours to help fill the voids, Rigot said. 

Workers wanted, especially nurses

With the addition of more than 150 beds by the end of 2022, Physicians Regional Healthcare's need for workers vital to patient care will only grow, said Paul Martone, the hospital system's director of business development. 

The system provides a comprehensive compensation package to employees that includes such perks as tuition reimbursement, as well as offering more flexible scheduling.

"We are focused on creating a supportive environment for our workforce with a positive, service-oriented culture," Martone said.

The system has a particular need for nurses to fill both year-round and seasonal positions. 

"In addition to incentives for nurse recruitment, we also encourage employees to help identify new team members and offer a referral bonus for certain departments with open nursing positions," Martone said. 

To help combat the national nursing shortage, Physicians Regional recently implemented "a robust hospital-based school of nursing for those who desire to work on the front lines of patient care," he said.

The six-semester Jersey College Professional Nursing Program culminates in an associate of science degree in nursing, with hospital employment possibilities while in school," Martone said. "Graduates have the opportunity to become a registered nurse."

The hospital system has been successful in bringing in travel nurses from other parts of the country and world — and it will continue to do so through season to meet higher demands, he said.

Florida Gulf Coast University "continues to use proven recruitment methods to find skilled, diverse employees," said Pamela McCabe, a coordinator of university communications and media relations.

"Our local applicant pool has increased with the strategic use of local job boards, coalitions and networking opportunities," she said.

The university uses flexible scheduling to "fill the void while recruiting for a job opening," McCabe said.

"During short periods of time, a highly skilled workforce can often accommodate for openings, without impacting service to students until new faculty, staff or occasional workers join the team," she said.

Freshman Hailey Kaufman outside the First Year tent at Florida Gulf Coast University on Thursday, August 19, 2021.

Big employers have lots of jobs to fill

Other employers advertising a large number of job openings in Lee County include Volunteers of America (173), NeoGenomics (136), and the Millennium Physician Group (124). 

NeoGenomics has continued to expand in Southwest Florida — and beyond. 

To support its growth, the Fort Myers-based medical lab, specializing in genetic testing and research for cancer, recently built a new multimillion headquarters west of Interstate 75, near Alico Road.

The headquarters includes 150,000 square feet of high-end office space, designer employee lounges, cutting-edge collaborative spaces, and a full-service cafeteria — with indoor and outdoor seating.

"Most importantly, our new innovative wet and dry laboratories provide much-needed expanded space for us to save lives and improve patient care. Our beautiful headquarters is a testament to how far we have come and our commitment to this region. It serves as a new front door for our dedicated NeoGenomics teams worldwide," said Jennifer Balliet, the company's chief culture officer. 

The company has recently filled more than 250 positions at its local operations, she said.

"Hiring and retaining top local talent requires us to continuously improve upon our world-class culture and enrichment opportunities for all employees. As a result, our focus on our employees’ well-being is a top priority supported by our core values of quality, integrity, accountability, teamwork, and innovation," Balliet said.

Vials of white blood samples sit Nov. 15, 2012 at the NeoGenomics facility in Fort Myers, Fla.

The company offers competitive market salaries and a comprehensive benefits package that includes medical, dental and vision plans, as well as flexible spending and health savings accounts, a 401(k) retirement plan with a generous match and an educational assistance program.

"Emphasizing a healthy work-life balance, we offer free credits for local gym memberships, sixteen days of paid time off, and six paid holidays. Employee assistance programs include counseling, legal, financial assistance, and lifestyle and fitness management, Balliet said.

Since the pandemic hit, NeoGenomics has done more remote video interviewing for job candidates and many of its jobs can now be done remotely, she said.

"We have been able to stay engaged and connected with employees through virtual means, including town halls, employee resource group activities, and even wellness offerings, such as chair yoga," Balliet said.

More needs, emphasizing growth

In Collier, other employers advertising a large number of job openings include the David Lawrence Center (68), the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort (65), the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. (65), and Collier County Public Schools.

At the David Lawrence Center for mental health, Scott Burgess, the CEO, said his organization, like many other employers here and around the country, has found it particularly difficult to fill starter and high-demand positions, such as those for nurses. 

Scott Burgess/
president and CEO/
David Lawrence Center

"We have been offering sign-on bonuses for all positions," he said. "In addition to offering strong health, paid time off and a 401(k) match, we recently increased our benefits associated with tuition reimbursement."

An employee-led committee regularly spotlights workers' accomplishments and hosts friendly competitions and fun events, such as the center's recent holiday party. 

Management encourages staff to consider the center a place for their career and not "just a job", Burgess said. 

"We want to help each individual grow personally and professionally across time and we seek to allow movement into new opportunities in new departments and roles as they have such interests and capabilities," he said.

Two years ago, the center launched a leadership development program, which will have 100 staff participants by the end of 2022, Burgess said. 

"We seek staff feedback and insights to ascertain their ideas on how we can continue to support their needs," he said. "All these efforts are helping us with engagement and retention."

Over the past two years, the center has added 50 new positions to expand its services and reach.

"Across 2022, we will be seeking mission-minded and committed professionals in areas of crisis support, inpatient care, outpatient care and community-based care," Burgess said.

Needs include everything from nurses and psychiatrists to administrative workers and peer support specialists. The specialists are people who have experienced mental health issues and can offer insight, encouragement and comfort to help patients recover more quickly.

"I believe the hiring conditions in Collier will remain challenging into the near future, and likely well beyond," Burgess said. "In addition to issues associated with the pandemic, a lack of affordable workforce housing is a major barrier to realizing full employment, especially for entry-level positions. This issue, requires a concerted community effort to address short- and long-term," Burgess said.

More job fairs

Construction is underway on Collier County Public Schools’ new high school in North Naples, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, near Veterans Memorial Blvd., in Naples, Fla.

The new school will open in August of 2023.

In an effort to fill its many vacant positions, Collier County Schools, the county's largest employer, has started holding hiring fairs the first Friday of every month at its administrative offices in downtown Fort Myers. The fairs are held from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The school system provides employees with paid medical and basic term life insurance benefits, as well as paid-time-off and sick leave and work-life programs, said Jennifer Kupiec a specialist for communications and community engagement.

Current needs include teachers, bus drivers and nutrition services workers, as well as support staff. 

"In addition to filling positions for this year, we are actively recruiting for next year as well," Kupiec said.

Floor attendant Maria Hernandez disinfects gaming machines, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee.

Other large employers in the region are holding more job fairs and hiring events too, including the Seminole Indian Casino Hotel. Its success with hiring and staffing can be partly attributed to those efforts, said spokesman Gary Bitner.

The casino and hotel also offer good benefits packages, which have been an important draw for prospective job candidates, he said. 

Health benefits are available to full-time workers, who can get one free meal per shift. 

Employees can also earn rewards for referring prospective job candidates if hired.

Rich Hull of Milwaukee, Wisconsin passes the time playing penny slots at the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee.

Finding talent in the backyard

While there's no easy solution to the worker shortage, there are many efforts underway to try and ease the problem in Southwest Florida.  

One of those efforts, led by the FutureMakers Coalition, made up of a host of community partners, is to increase the level of educational attainment among adults, making them more employable — and enabling them to obtain higher-skill, higher-wage jobs.

One of the coalition's primary goals is to make sure 55% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 in the region have education beyond high school by 2025.

"Nearly 60% of working adults in Southwest Florida don't have credentials beyond a high school diploma. Many don't have anything beyond a GED," said Tessa LeSage, the coalition's director. 

Tessa LeSage

Meanwhile, she said, two out of three jobs in the region will require more than that level of education by 2025.

This month, the coalition has launched a new navigator program to identify and help adult workers start or finish a degree or credential program so they're more qualified to fill local jobs.

The coalition has hired a few navigators for the program, funded by its business partners. The service is offered at no cost to recipients.

There are plans to add more navigators, with expectations that the program will be highly successful, as it has been elsewhere, particularly in Nashville, LeSage said.

Through an earlier program, funded by a charitable grant, the coalition helped Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College recruit and encourage dropouts to return to college.

"We were able to bring back 800 dropouts," LeSage said. "And well over 100 have already graduated. Some of them only needed one class." 

Those graduates have added to the local workforce — and the coalition believes there are thousands more dropouts that could be prodded back to school to finish what they started. 

"The best workforce is a local workforce," LeSage said. "We believe the talent we need is already here. We just need to make sure our systems are designed to support them in getting the skills that they need."