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

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

How bad is the worker shortage in Southwest Florida?

"Some businesses have had to close two days a week to sustain themselves. They don't have enough staff," said Janeth Castrejon, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida. "We have a hiring crisis. (There) are short-staffed issues."

I’m told by employers there are plenty of jobs, but not available employees to fill them. Hotel managers in Naples and Estero have found themselves turning away guests because they've had to close off large blocks of rooms they can't service.

One of them described a typical scenario as such: She'll line up a half-dozen interviews in a day. Only two applicants show up. The prospect she hires suddenly stops coming in after a day or two on the job, often lured away by a better opportunity.

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If Southwest Florida companies don't have enough workers now in the typically slower summer season when there are less of us here, fewer customers and lower occupancies, how is this going to play out with the upcoming massive influx of snowbirds and tourists? Who is going to be here to serve them?

"Your question is very relevant," Castrejon said. "What are businesses going to do?"

And we all thought lines at stores and waits at restaurants have been challenging in past winters.

"Just as you said, there are issues,"  Castrejon told me. "It is a struggle. They're calling it the talent crisis."

The lines at the grocery store have hopefully not been this long in Southwest Florida over the summer. With the ongoing "hiring crisis,' what will the winter snowbird season bring?

And it has huge implications for Southwest Florida consumers and businesses wanting to develop and expand.

It's not that there are fewer workers. Most of them are employed in a summer with unusually low unemployment rates.

"It will definitely get lower when season hits in October. And now it's at pretty low levels for any summer," said Chris Westley, economist and dean of the Lutgert School of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University. "I expect it to continue."

Chris Westley, Florida Gulf Coast University

We actually have a larger labor force (combination of employed and unemployed) than prior to the pandemic, if you can believe that, according to Castrejon. And that was winter at its peak in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties.

"I compared our numbers. It was really interesting that when I looked at February 2020 — we're talking about pre-pandemic numbers — the labor force for Southwest Florida was 636,837 people," Castrejon said. "In July 2021, which is this report we're talking about, the labor force was 641,912. We exceeded pre-pandemic numbers, but we cannot hire labor."

They're essentially nowhere to be found with less than 5% unemployment, which she said is "considered at full employment" for the region.

So in the words of the late Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On?" or if you prefer Natalie Merchant from her 10,000 Maniacs days, "What's the Matter Here?"

A favorite talking point in a few circles has largely low-wage laborers sitting the sidelines due to stimulus money and similar programs, and that's somehow to blame for all of this today and what's ahead. But Westley agrees with Castrejon that it's not.

"If it was, it's not a factor anymore," Westley said. "I always remind myself, there is always someone to perform some job at some wage."

Migration begins:Meet your new neighbors trying to escape tight spaces; they're probably from New York, Jersey, Miami or Lauderdale

Challenges include immigration

To start, as In the Know first reported last year and new Census numbers now show, we've had the surge of residents, many of them retirees, who have been moving here during the pandemic. That's meant some business expansion and additional job vacancies to go with them.

"We have an increased labor force because of the migration," Castrejon said.

And as part of a national trend, there's something else going on.

"This is a generational gap," Castrejon said. "What the generational gap explains is that baby boomers — which there are 70 million of them — many of them were forced to retire early during the pandemic.

Janeth Castrejon

"A lot of jobs were left unfilled, and the hope was that the Generation X, which is 64 million, would follow and take over those traditional jobs, in addition to the Millennial Generation, which is 72 million, and Generation Z, which is 67 million. What we're seeing is that the Millennials and Generation Z are not necessarily interested in the traditional jobs the Baby Boomers left behind."

And there's immigration. 

For the entirety of our nation's history, we have relied on immigrants to help fill gaps. But they've been caught in the border politics of recent years and COVID-19.

"The pandemic was a negative effect to losing some of the immigration workforce. We're talking about people who are actually allowed to work here," Castrejon said. "But also during that time we were going through a very challenging political environment, and I feel also that was a factor."

The situation seemed dire early during the coronavirus era in the U.S. 

"Companies were closing left and right, and jobs were being lost. We did see a migration out of the country, at least for my culture — I am Latina," said Castrejon, formerly of Panama. "Decisions (were) being made of 'Do we stay in the United States here and face all the challenges, or do we go back to our country?'"

That's been reversing itself this year, and she hopes it continues.

Booming population:In the Know: What Southwest Florida communities are the fastest growing in the state, the nation, according to new census stats?

People participate in the Families Belong Together march in Chicago on Saturday, June 30, 2018. In major cities and tiny towns, marchers gathered across America, in one of the many acts of mass resistance against President Donald Trump's immigration policies.  (AP)

"The United States will always be a very attractive country to come and live and work," Castrejon said. "We've always felt that this country, compared to our own country, gave us more opportunity for our families to be safe, for us to grow and to find a business or a career opportunity so I'm hoping to see those numbers."

Will it provide some relief to the talent shortage?

"That could be part of alleviating that need," Castrejon said. "It can if the immigrants who come here have the proper visa and working requirements and understand and can write and can function in English and any working environment."

COVID quagmire

Before we get to that point, there are other hurdles.

There may be even fewer workers ahead as coronavirus hospitalizations soar in Southwest Florida and the rest of the state. It's of particular concern for leisure and hospitality, which Castrejon said had been impacted the most during the pandemic and making a "fantastic" recovery through the latest July data, prior to the unsettling August COVID-19 records.

"Now I'm wondering, which we haven't seen the numbers yet, but I wonder about this Delta variant spread of individuals getting sick, which also potentially could affect this industry because they have that very close contact with their customers," Castrejon said. "It's not without its challenges. We're not out of the woods yet."

Through July, vaccines had been playing a key role in the area's economic comeback as more locals became increasingly comfortable interacting with the public.

"A lot of that quick recovery has to do with vaccine availability," Castrejon said. "They're offering vaccines left and right. That's a very good thing, and that has increased the confidence of the re-entrant jobseeker, (the) confidence to re-enter the labor force."

Nichole Arevalo, an R.N. at the downtown campus of NCH in Naples treats a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit on Monday, August 9, 2021.

Will the confidence last, whether for parents, caretakers or anyone needing face-to-face encounters to make a living?

"During COVID, mothers had to let go of their jobs to care for family members who are sick or for their children. Then we started to see some of them re-enter the labor force again, once the day care and the schools reopened. But now we're dealing with the Delta variant out there," Castrejon said. "I'm a little bit concerned to see what the numbers will look like in August going forward."

The confidence is tied to feeling safe, which In the Know detailed last week, and this has ramifications, with the issue mired in politics, for the economy's future.

That's one reason a vast majority in some state and national polls back merchants exerting their private property rights to keep employees and others coming through their doors safe by promoting vaccine requirements, masks or other measures.

Even in a Quinnipiac University survey released Tuesday in which support wasn't as strong, Florida respondents still felt communities should be able to require masks in indoor public spaces by a 68% to 29% result. That's in sharp contrast to Naples Republican Congressman Byron Donalds, who said this past week he's against that.

Friday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis had his latest court defeat after a judge tossed out his ban on mandatory masks in schools. Many Republicans including Sen. Rick Scott of Naples want no part in the DeSantis fights, the Miami Herald reported Thursday night.

Meanwhile, the hospitals remain busy in the battle against COVID-19, sometimes successful, sometimes not. On Friday, for example, Lee Health's four acute-care hospitals were at 98% staffed capacity.

Asked about the hospitalizations, state officials confirmed their impact had not showed up in their July labor statistics released just over a week ago.

"So far, we do not see any impacts in our data in the labor market," said Adrienne Johnston, chief economist for the state's Department of Economic Opportunity.

Previously:Judge throws out Gov. DeSantis' ban on mandatory masks in FL schools

No vaccination? Americans back tough rules, mask mandates to protect the common good

Plus:Confident freshman Rep. Byron Donalds explains position against mask, vaccine mandates to advisory board

'Some level of tension'

Like Castrejon, Johnston said the job challenges go beyond Southwest Florida. Her agency has counted online in the range of a half-million or so help wanted advertisements.

"We saw a record number of job ads, and those advertisements are only the ones that we see online, and often those represent more jobs than just that one being advertised. We know there's a lot of demand out there. I think we're really seeing that across all industries," Johnston said. "Every job, category, class, industry, sector is experiencing some level of tension in the labor market."

So can this be resolved?

"One thing to keep in mind, is we've experienced a significant event last year. There was a major disruption to the labor market. And while the recovery has been relatively quick, compared to the previous recession, it does take time for employers and employees to connect back in the labor market. (We) are continuing to see people move back into the labor force," Johnston said. "It just takes a little bit of time for these connections to be made."

State economist Adrienne Johnston presents as one of the keynote speakers during the annual forum hosted by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

In the meantime, Castrejon has offered some ideas, besides retention, which should be the No. 1 priority. One involves what she terms "justice-involved individuals" and law enforcement, which is a concept that can be copied by many agencies and businesses.

With "individuals who have minor offenses who are about to get out of the jail, Lee County sheriff's office is looking for companies who are open to giving these individuals an opportunity, a job where they can restart their lives," she said. "It could be one of those areas to find that talent shortage."

Castrejon also suggests partnering with school districts, which have English as a Second Language classes.

"We're talking high-level professionals who go through this process from other countries. They can be doctors, they're lawyers. They've got master's, PhDs, but the barrier that they have is English," she said. "They might not necessarily write, understand or speak English well enough to be in the work force. They go first to these kinds of classes."

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.