Help wanted, desperately

Ozaukee County businesses, from restaurants to manufacturers, are struggling to grow, survive amid a worsening shortage of employees

Signs like these outside Beck’s in Saukville illustrate the labor shortage. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The signs are everywhere you turn in Ozaukee County — banners proclaiming “Help Wanted” and “Now Hiring” are becoming ubiquitous in Ozaukee County and throughout the state.

“Just driving around, you see all the help wanted signs,” Kim Voeller, owner of Dockside Deli in Port Washington, said. “And everyone’s talking about it. I hear my customers talking about it, people in offices — it’s not just restaurants.”

And while it may seem like the evidence is anecdotal, Kathleen Cady Schilling, executive director of Ozaukee Economic Development, said it isn’t.

“It’s definitely a concern we’re seeing,” she said. “We just don’t have enough people, let alone enough skilled people.”

And the impact can be significant.

Nate Kohn, president of Nate’s Landscape Company in Belgium, said it has limited how much work his company can take on.

“It’s the limiting factor in our growth,” he said. “We’ve already turned down a lot of work this year. 

“We’ve had huge growth in the last few years. We could double and triple our business in the next three years without doing any marketing but it comes down to can we find good, qualified workers to help us grow our business.”

Ten years ago, Kohn said, it was a lot easier to find workers.

“Now, there’s plenty of work and you’re fighting to find people,” he said, noting he’s spent the money he had allocated for marketing to try to 

acquire more employees.

Kohn, who said he’s looking for as many as 200 part-time workers this winter, said he’s increased wages at his business 40 percent over the past three years to try and attract good employees.

He’s willing to train employees, he said, and to consider applicants he wouldn’t have in the past. He’s also invested in equipment that will minimize the number of people he needs, Kohn said.

Voeller, too, said she’s struggling to attract part-time workers to replace the students who worked at her restaurant during the summer. 

“We’ve tried to make it as attractive as we can,” she said, noting she’s adjusted the hours of her restaurant to make the schedule more attractive to potential employees. 

“You have to get creative,” she said.

Gerry Schwarz, president and CEO of KMC, acknowledged there are challenges to hiring today.

“You have to work a little harder at it,” he said. “It’s a challenge to find the right people.”

KMC is seeking about 20 employees between its four facilities — two in Port, one in Fredonia and the other in Walker’s Point — with most of those jobs a result of company growth, Schwarz said, adding he has a workforce of about 330 employees but little turnover.

“You have to have a broader approach (than in the past),” added KMC’s Heidi Hellesen, director of human resources. “You can’t just do one thing.  You have to cast a broader net.”

That’s evident with a quick look at the  classified advertising sections of newspapers, which today have numerous job listings. Some companies have taken to social media, while others have gone so far as to take out billboards to try and attract applicants.

“Every business has different things they’re looking at,” Cady Schilling said.

Some businesses are looking at wage and benefit packages, while others are looking at ways to achieve work-life balance, she said.

Some businesses are aiming at youths to develop a workforce, while others are looking to retain employees who would otherwise retire, she said.

The state is starting a campaign to work with returning veterans, while others are trying to keep college graduates in the state.

“All of these things come into play when you’re looking at a tight labor market,” Cady Schilling said.

Schwarz said his firm does a lot of training and works hard to place people in positions where they will shine. There’s also a lot of internal movement in the firm, which allows workers to grow — something that’s appealing today.

“In today’s market, people want variety,” he said. “They want to do different things.”

Their input into operations is also valued, which creates a work environment people like, Schwarz added.

The main factor contributing to the limited workforce is demographics, Cady Schilling said.

“Much of it has to do with the aging out of the baby boomers,” she said. “And as a state, we’ve not had the population growth other areas have had. When these (baby boomers) retire, there’s not enough people to take their place.”

Also contributing to the tight workforce is the economy, Schwarz said.

“The manufacturing sector in particular is growing,” he said. “I think you’re seeing a lot of good things happen. That’s driving the need for good people.”

The impact is being felt across the board, in health care and service industries as well as manufacturing and retail,  Cady Schilling said.

Ozaukee Economic Development is working to develop skills training classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College to help businesses and to work with businesses and MATC to create customized training classes that will allow businesses to make better use of their current employees, she said.

“In today’s tight labor market, they (employers) are much more likely to provide training,” Cady Schilling said.

But, she added, the key still remains finding employees with a “strong work ethic to come to work every day, to show up on time, to work a full shift.”

Wages, she said, aren’t necessarily increasing in response to the tight market.

“That is slowly starting to happen,” Cady Schilling said. “We’re starting to see some wage pressure.”

But, she said, the recession held wages down so long that it took them a while to get back up to normal.

The lack of public transportation is also a factor, Cady Schilling said.

The quality of job applicants is also a concern, Kohn said. Some people are applying for jobs with no intention of ever taking them, failing to even show up for interviews. Some ask if he’ll pay cash so they can keep benefits from other places, such as unemployment.

Some will agree to work extra hours if needed but then fail to even answer the phone when you call them, he added. 

“A lot of applicants apply because they’re required to, not because they want to work,” Kohn said. “There’s a high percentage of people who have realized, ‘If I don’t want to, I don’t have to because there’s something else around the corner.

“It seems like the quality of people, the work ethic, has diminished.”

Voeller agreed, noting she’s had many people fail to show up for interviews.

“I hope it’s not a sign of people in general,” she said. “It’s been frustrating to go through that.”


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Ozaukee Press

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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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