Facing a worker shortage, hotels and builders are revamping training programs

Florida's jobless rate held steady in August at 3.7 percent, unchanged from August, according to state figures released Friday. Pictured is a woman at a job fair in 2014. | (SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times, 2014)
Florida's jobless rate held steady in August at 3.7 percent, unchanged from August, according to state figures released Friday. Pictured is a woman at a job fair in 2014. | (SKIP O'ROURKE | Times, 2014)
Published September 21 2018
Updated September 21 2018

If the TradeWinds Island Resorts can convince a new employee to stay at least 90 days, there’s a good chance that person will stay even longer.

And that’s a big win, according to hotel president and COO Keith Overton.

"Of all the problems in our organization, getting good labor and enough labor is the biggest," Overton said. "It was always bad, but it’s really bad (now)."

Construction and leisure/hospitality are the two industries leading job creation statewide, according to employment figures released Friday. Their surge in jobs feeds into a narrative of continued economic growth. According to the latest numbers, Florida’s unemployment rate in August stayed unchanged at a relatively low 3.7 percent with 20,500 jobs added in August alone.

The two industries leading the charge, however, also share a similar, growing problem: they can’t find enough workers. Instead of searching for qualified candidates in more far-flung locations — as some used to — more companies in both industries are now looking closer to home. They’re revamping training programs and investing in available lower-skilled workers as a long-term solution to the worsening labor shortage.

The construction industry has for years been plagued with a nationwide labor shortage caused by an exodus of construction workers after the 2008 recession. Because of this, older workers are retiring without a robust class of younger workers taking their places. That wasn’t as big of a concern during the Great Recession. But the current construction boom across the state is once again leaving builders scrambling for qualified people.

"It’s severe," said Steve Cona, president of Associated Builders and Contractors’ Gulf Coast chapter. "I don’t think it’s critical at this particular time, but it’s severe."

By ABC’s count, there is about $1.1 billion in commercial construction work currently happening within a 75-mile radius of Tampa Bay. Cona expects the rest of the year to be even busier for construction.

"Tampa will be one of the markets where a lot of folks from around the state will come and do work," he said.

Hospitality, too, is feeling the crunch. In Tampa Bay, the uptick in restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg and the proliferation of both big and small hotels has shifted around the already-small pool of skilled workers as many leave their companies to work in the new additions.

Companies across all sectors have finally begun to raise wages to attract talent, Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC said. But not all can raise wages significantly.

"There’s not a whole lot we can do to attract talent that’s not there," the TradeWinds’ Overton said. "Nobody’s going to relocate for $10 to $15 an hour."

Instead of focusing on enticing skilled workers, construction firms and hospitality businesses alike are leaning into their training and apprenticeship programs. ABC’s Cona estimates that to retain two or three workers through this type of program, firms have to begin training about 10 people at a time.

"They’re trying to grow their own talent here," he said. "Right now people want to stay as close to home as possible."

ABC’s own training program, one of the largest in the state, has about 600 apprentices in seven trades — nearly capacity.

The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association is focusing on early workforce training. Its Hospitality and Tourism Management Program gives high school juniors and seniors an entry into hotels and tourism management. It currently has about 2,000 students across the state, none of which are in Tampa Bay. The ProStart Program trains high school students in culinary and restaurant positions, and currently has 20,000 students across the state. About 20 participating schools are in Tampa Bay.

"This is one of the only industries left where you can (start) from the ground up," Samantha Padgett, general counsel for the association, said. Early training programs help young people get in on the ground floor.

Tampa Bay has added 32,400 jobs year over year, second-most after the Orlando metro area, which added 51,700 jobs. The bay area’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.6 percent, down from 3.8 percent in July.

For August, Hillsborough County’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, down from 3.8 percent; Hernando County dipped to 4.7 percent from 4.9 percent the previous month; Pinellas County inched down to 3.4 percent from 3.5 percent; and Pasco County declined to 4 percent from 4.2 percent.

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Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.