WE’RE SEEING a lot of signs for political candidates pop up all over town.
There are a lot of other signs popping up too. They say: Now Hiring.
From the swankiest new boutique hotels, to the hippest “live/work/play” developments, to the late-night pizza joint on Congress Street, the local service industry is hiring... in many cases, just about anybody.
Quite simply, there are too few warm bodies applying for too many available jobs, in too many key places.
As many of our high-profile service industry projects come to fruition and are beginning to serve customers in earnest, they are discovering the hardest job of all might be... filling jobs.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago, comparing Savannah to Charleston’s increasingly serious labor shortage. In Charleston, downtown restaurants are actually closing not because there are no customers, but because they literally can’t keep enough staff.
It’s a strange problem to have — and certainly better than many other problems — but it’s a mostly unanticipated issue facing many of America’s hottest markets
This includes Savannah, which was recently labeled by one widely-shared study as one of the nation’s leading markets for creative professionals.
It’s not exactly a new problem, but it is one exacerbated by the sheer high temperature of the local and regional economy.
Hilton Head, for example, has been a leading indicator of this issue for many years. I’ve urged local folks for a long time to pay more attention to what’s going on there, so we won’t make the same mistakes. But Savannah typically thinks the map of the known world ends at the border of Chatham County.
At the heart of the problem is a lack of affordable housing, which is itself inextricably tied to transportation issues.
While wages will inevitably rise to a certain extent due to the crushing demand for labor, these jobs still rarely pay enough to afford the rapidly increasing rents near Savannah’s city center. The added cost and inconvenience of transportation, parking, etc. make these jobs less attractive to many people.
Hilton Head is indeed a stark example of this phenomenon, with the vast bulk of service industry workers forced to live off the island entirely. The service industry there has suffered as a result.
A much-anticipated report released this past spring shows that only 20 percent of all housing on Hilton Head proper is affordable to service workers.
About 16,000 workers have to commute on and off the island to keep its service industry afloat. One prominent Hilton Head restaurant group says 40 percent of its staff lives in Bluffton.
The report says about 200 new affordable housing units per year will have to be constructed to come anywhere close to remedying the situation on Hilton Head.
It’s not just the service industry that’s affected by housing/transportation issues.
Police and firefighters — who along with teachers are our most important professions, and also among our lowest-paid — in many cases must move further and further away from the communities they serve.
This has the negative trickle-down effect of decreasing an important kind of diversity that unfortunately gets little attention: Economic diversity.
Some places are taking steps to try and solve these issues. I’m not sure any of the steps could be characterized as “proactive,” since in many cases the problems are endemic. But at least it’s something.
For example, Charleston is considering a whole raft of new development guidelines, many of which either directly or indirectly address the affordable housing/workforce conundrum.
They are weighing a proposal to force new hotels in residential/apartment areas to maintain the same number of apartments or homes they displace within a quarter mile.
Another measure calls for any new hotel in downtown Charleston to pay $3.44 per square foot back to the City to promote affordable housing initiatives.
It’s easy to say, as many activists do, that the answer is to simply mandate that businesses, somehow, must pay more in wages.
But the way I see it, even if such a mandate were legally possible, it would have the negative effects of rewarding businesses with deeper pockets, further driving out locally owned small business, and further incentivizing part-time hiring rather than full-time.
And in really hot markets, the going wage is already above the so-called “living wage,” often pegged at $15 an hour.
So we see that this is a multi-faceted issue with many moving parts.
There is no reason, other than lack of political will, that Savannah cannot formulate a vision to attempt to address these issues in an equitable manner, which will both address workforce problems while maintaining a business-friendly environment.
There are a lot of great folks in the public sector, the private sector, and with local nonprofits who have correctly identified these issues, and want to help solve them.
But they need the help of voters to put into office elected leaders who can get behind these ideas.
To reiterate: Ours is a problem many other cities and towns in America would love to trade their own problems for.
Cities in the Rust Belt are dying, their manufacturing base gone and their younger population fleeing for the Sun Belt.
Small towns all over America are fading away in a miasma of joblessness, opioids, suicide, and despair.
Savannah still has it pretty good. Let’s not squander a rare, and feasible, opportunity to fix a problem many other places would love to have.