On Monday, Maria’s Mexican Grill will close indefinitely, a move taken reluctantly but necessitated by a staffing shortage.
“We strive to give the best service to our customers,” a statement from the management reads. “Taking this into consideration, we have made this decision as we have been very low staffed for many months now.”
Sadly, “they are not alone with these issues,” said Great Bend Economic Development Inc. President Sara Hayden. Across the board, local businesses struggle to find employees.
Kansas Lt. Gov. David Toland made a stop in Great Bend Wednesday on an economic development-themed swing through northwest Kansas. He assured Hayden Great Bend is not alone in its labor challenge.
“He said he’s had this conversation in every community he’s visited,” Hayden said. “This is a problem in all rural communities.”
According to a Kansas Department of Labor report released last Friday, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in March, a was a decrease from 3.8% in February and an increase from 3.2% in March 2020. In Barton County, the rate was 3.3%, down from 3.5% in both February and March 2020.
The low jobless rate story is the same in the surrounding counties. And, with the exception of the more urban regions of Kansas, it holds true across the state.
But the workforce crisis is a many-headed beast, Hayden said. “You can’t address workforce needs without addressing housing and childcare. It is a circle effect.”
Currently, there are efforts underway to address all three of these, but Hayden said it just take time. “I wish I could snap my fingers and these would all be finished, but it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.”
The effort to establish a Workforce Development Program in Great Bend continues, she said. “This is such a collaborative effort. There’s a lot of people at the table.”
Kansas Workforce One and other employment service entities, Barton Community College, Sunflower Diversified Services, Rosewood Services, Juvenile Justice Authority and a host of other parties are all engaged, she said. They have already met twice.
As part of this effort, GBED contracted with Gruen and Gruen Associates of San Francisco, Calif., which surveyed 91 Great Bend businesses. Of those, 85% need to hire right now or will be hiring five to 10 employees in the near future, they reported in March.
“They also said that their number one dilemma is finding workforce,” Hayden said. “So we know that this is a top priority. We know it’s something that we need to focus on.”
“We have to work on recruiting to bring new people into the community,” Hayden said. Otherwise, folks just “shuffle from job to job” and the shortage doesn’t improve.
“There are so many services our community has to offer but people don’t know about them,” she said. So, while the group tackles recruiting, they are working on a marketing effort.
Hampering efforts are the current extra unemployment benefits available from to the COVID-19 pandemic relief packages, as well as a lack of training needed for potential job seekers wanting to make a change.
As for housing, the initial reports a GBED housing study noted the community faces a housing shortage, she said. The RDG Planning and Design, Omaha, Neb.,, found that building activity over the last six years has not been enough to support growth and only two new units have been built since 2018.
Conservatively, there would need to be 22 houses per year built to enable Great Bend to support moderate new growth. A recent study with Gruen and Gruen, as well as the housing study focus group with eight major employers, indicated there are over 700 job openings currently in the community.
So if Great Bend captured just a third of these jobs as new households, we would need to create over 200 housing units immediately, This number is what what’s needed to address the pent up demand in the community beyond what is needed to support the overall growth.
Statistics released in March indicate Barton County has close to 700 children who are in need of childcare, according the Salina-based Child Care Aware of Kansas. That tells us that we really need to come up with some kind of a support network to be able to help to solve that problem, Hayden said.
They are working closely with Garden City to duplicate successful efforts there. The Finney County Childcare and Early Learning Network board was formed in 2019 and began work in identifying spaces that could accommodate childcare. The group has been awarded tax credits to help expand services to address long-term workforce requirements in the growing community.
The have put together a task force that is working with the schools, major employers, the city and county, and childcare providers in the community.
Labor shortage a national, regional woe
Local business owners are struggling to find employees. But, Great Bend, and even the state as whole, are not alone.
“The pace of job growth varied by industry but was generally strongest in manufacturing, construction, and leisure and hospitality,” notes the Federal Reserve System’s April 14 Beige Book report, looking at a national level. But, “hiring remained a widespread challenge, particularly for low-wage or hourly workers, restraining job growth in some cases. Commercial and delivery drivers were specifically cited as in short supply, as were specialty and skilled tradespeople.”
Regionally, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reported “the majority of contacts reported labor shortages, with strong demand for truck drivers, information technology staff, and skilled technicians.”