Over the past few months, industries such as food service, hospitality, trucking, retail, and more have been having a difficult time hiring employees, finding themselves in an unprecedented labor shortage that has befuddled businesses. Job openings are at a record high as businesses look to reopen from COVID-19 shutdowns — in July 2021 there were 10.9 million job openings reported. Yet, in that same month, there were only 8.4 million people who were unemployed and seeking work.
Sharples has been hit hard by the worker shortage. “We’re struggling to operate on a daily basis,” said Dining Services Director Linda McDougall in an interview with The Phoenix.
There are currently four full time benefits eligible positions and fifteen to twenty part-time positions that are not currently filled, which means about 210 hours are not covered in total from full and part time. The Science Center Cafe and Essie Mae’s are also struggling with a scarcity of part time employees. Kohlberg Coffee Bar is the only dining establishment currently fully staffed.
Public Safety has also been feeling the effects of the worker shortage. Currently, there is one full time officer position and two part time officer positions that are not filled, as well as two shuttle driver positions that are available.
The worker shortage places tremendous strain on Sharples staff, who must make up for the deficit in hours by working overtime and taking double shifts.
“We are very lucky that many staff are willing to work additional hours,” said McDougall. “But at some point they’ll get burned out, too.”
Fall Break was a welcome respite for staff who have been stretched thin, since most Sharples employees were able to take almost the full week off to recuperate.
Director of Public Safety Mike Hill lauded his staff for similarly filling in the deficit of hours. Hill wrote in an email to The Phoenix about the current Public Safety staffing levels.
“In some instances staff gave back vacation days or worked extra hours to ensure proper staffing levels,” wrote Hill. “Everyone pitches in … to maintain a minimum of three staff per shift, which translates to two individuals responding to calls and one person working the communication center.”
As it has been for businesses across the country, the current shortage has been unprecedented.
“I’ve been here thirty one years and I’ve never experienced a situation like this,” McDougall said. In the past, Sharples would occasionally be down one person, a deficit that could easily be covered by the other employees. But a deficit of over 200 hours of work a week has been difficult to make up for with current employees.
Opinions abound on what the causes and consequences of the labor shortage are. The Washington Post refers to the shortage as “The Great Reassessment,” the phenomenon of people rethinking their career trajectories and seeking out more desirable jobs. This reassessment has been especially prevalent among lower-income workers who have been working on the front lines of the pandemic under extreme conditions.
While some have painted stimulus checks and unemployment benefits as causes of the labor shortage, recent economic research by Arindrajit Dube et al. shows only a negligible increase in employment between states that withdrew unemployment benefits early and states that maintained generous benefits throughout the pandemic.
McDougall suspects that many of the people who might be interested in working at Sharples are instead looking for jobs in logistics centers, warehouses, and other industries that are less front-facing. This is a trend that has been observed in the food service industry as a whole, as workers fear the perceived instability of the industry, which was roiled by waves of shutdowns, instead seeking jobs that seem more stable and require less interaction with customers.
Additionally, a recent policy change no longer allows Sharples to employ high school students who are under eighteen, which has left several part-time positions open that would usually be covered by these high school students. McDougall has been trying to encourage Swarthmore students to work for Sharples in part-time student positions, but has not had much success finding student employees.
McDougall has been trying to stress the benefits that working at Sharples offers to employees, especially when compared to other jobs in the restaurant industry. She has been stressing that restaurant chefs need to work long odd hours in a frantic environment, often late at night, on holidays, and every weekend. Sharples offers a better deal, she explained: employees have consistent pay of at least $15 an hour, time off for Christmas and New Year’s, often have weekends off, get better health benefits, and work in an environment that is more supportive and collaborative. A recently hired cook, she said, decided to work at Sharples instead of at a restaurant because he recently had a child — working at Sharples, he can get home before nine every night, whereas at a restaurant, he would still be in the kitchen long afterwards.
The college-wide minimum wage increase to $15 which occurred over the summer has not had a noticeable effect on increasing the number of applicants, and the college is not currently looking to increase the wages of Sharples employees.
Similarly, Public Safety has begun hiring “Garnet Guides,” Swarthmore students who work for PubSafe by receiving calls at the call center, opening doors for students locked out of their rooms, escorting students, and more. PubSafe has hired two Garnet Guides thus far, and is looking to hire thirteen more this semester. The Garnet Guide program was not conceived as a response to understaffing concerns (it was announced in February 2021), but Hill is “confident that these positions will be a huge benefit for the students, the team, and the campus community.”
McDougall has been trying various methods to recruit new employees. She has put ads on Facebook, Nextdoor, Handshake, and various online platforms. She has reached out to vocational schools and student employment offices at various colleges in the area. She has even reached out to the career office at Ridley High School to get eighteen-year-old seniors to apply for part time positions, and has placed yard signs all around the county. She has also removed the cover letter and resume requirement from the application portal, among other efforts to make the application more accessible to applicants who might not have much experience with applying to jobs or with computers. Yet so far these efforts have not succeeded much in enticing new applicants. “I’m trying to be optimistic,” said McDougall, “but I open up my application pool and nobody’s applied in weeks.”
Thanks to the efforts of Sharples and PubSafe staff, students have for the most part not felt much of an impact from understaffing. The pizza bar in Sharples is not in service this semester due to lack of staff, and occasionally Sharples serves meals with disposable dinnerware when the dishwasher is not operational. Due to the increased volume of dinnerware ending up in the compost, the Office of Sustainability has found itself needing to hire more staff to sort the compost.
McDougall worries that current conditions might not be sustainable for too much longer. She wondered aloud, “If you’re used to offering some level of service then where is it fair for us to cut back?”
The brunt of the impact of understaffing has been felt by staff, who day in and day out work to maintain the same level of service despite the deficit of employees.
The new dining hall will bring with it new possibilities for dining, but it will also require additional staff to work the various cooking and serving stations that will be available to students. These new stations will focus more on “exhibition cooking” and cooking to order, and thus will require more specialized higher trained staff. McDougall hopes that the new work environment will offer employees more opportunities to connect with students and to feel pride and excitement about their work.