College kids to the rescue

City of Port Washington manages labor shortage with staff of seasonal workers willing to spend their summer vacations mowing grass, fueling boats

FILLING THE TANKS of boats with fuel is just one of the jobs handled by seasonal workers at the Port Washington marina, including (from left) Mitchell Niemeyer, Ava Mrozek, Case Norris and Benjamin Schramm. Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said the marina is a desirable place to work in large part because employees work outside and get to work around the boats. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The City of Port Washington wasn’t immune to the labor shortage that’s plaguing businesses, but officials got creative when needed, pooling resources and increasing pay to get the workforce they need this summer.

The marina and Parks and Recreation Department said they quickly filled their roster of employees, but others, particularly the Street Department, struggled to attract the college students they rely on to fill these seasonal positions.

Street Commissioner JD Hoile said it’s been getting more difficult to find help in recent years.

“We kind of struggle,” he said. “It’s been a little harder every year.”

He said there are likely two reasons for this —the work, which is primarily handling brush collection in the city, and the pay.

The workers typically spend the bulk of their week collecting brush, which Hoile said “is probably the hardest summer job we have. You’re bending over. It’s heavy. It’s dirty and it’s dusty.

“It’s a great workout, but it’s not the most fun job.”

To help make the job more palatable, Hoile said, he tries to use the summer workers on other jobs as well. 

“Not chipping or lawn mowing or weed whacking every day makes it a little easier,” he said.

Hoile noted that the Street Department also used to handle mowing and weed whacking at Union Cemetery, but this year handed that job over to the Parks Department. 

Those departments work together, he said, noting all the summer help is trained to run the chipper and do other duties as well.

“If I really need a few more kids, I’ll borrow his,” Hoile said, referring to Park Supt. Jon Crain. “If he needs a few kids, he’ll borrow mine.”

The labor market has also played a role in the difficulty to find workers, Hoile said, noting the city typically pays $11 an hour while private businesses pay more.

After he increased the summer wages to $13, he said, he was able to lure one of last year’s summer workers back and get a second worker.

“You have to stay competitive with wages,” Hoile said. “For a couple dollars an hour, you get a good kid. And to get good summer help makes my job a lot easier.

“This year, the two kids I’ve got are awesome.”

It’s not just the wages that attract workers, he said. The department runs nine-hour days for four days and is done at 10:30 a.m. Fridays, which is attractive. 

“The hours help, and being outside too,” he said. “We have good hours, and we’re flexible. You’re not doing the same thing all summer long.”

Crain said he, too, was able to fill all 13 seasonal positions — two adults and 11 students.

“We’re fortunate it is a really nice job for college students to work outside,” he said, noting about half his staff from last year returned. “It’s hard work, but it can be a rewarding job.”

His workers maintain the parks and their pavilions and the grounds at the water department, library, pool and Union Cemetery. They do a lot of grass cutting, plant and maintain flower beds, build and stain benches for the parks, help the full-time staff with construction projects and help maintain the city nursery. 

They also water the downtown planters as well as the plantings in the median on Highway 33 on the west side of the city, water the trees that were planted last fall when necessary and do planting projects in such places as Birchwood Hills.

“There’s a lot of variety,” Crain said.

The departments that had the least difficulty are the marina and Parks Department.

Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said he hasn’t had to advertise for the roughly 20 people he hires each year.

“We think it’s a good job,” he said. “They work outside. They work with the boats — and it’s always neat to work around boats. They get fresh air.”

Part of the allure may also be the hours, he said, noting that they vary the shifts for each worker and make sure each worker gets one weekend day off.

“We get a lot of compliments on our kids,” Cherny said. 

Similarly, Recreation Director Kiley Schulte said she hasn’t had issues finding and retaining workers. 

She was worried initially, she said, when she heard of shortages of lifeguards, but the department offered a free training course for lifeguards that helped attract workers.

“I feel very, very lucky,” she said. “People want to come work here.”

She noted that the department pays for training hours and covers the cost of certification — another measure she implemented this year to stave off any problems with hiring.

“I really think this is one of the best jobs to have,” Schulte said. “To say you worked for the City of Port Washington is a resume builder. And there’s a big aspect of the job that’s customer service, and in any career path, that’s a plus.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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