Local, State Efforts Target Service Sector

By Miriah Hamrick, posted Jan 20, 2023

Trying to keep Wilmington’s Slice of Life Pizzeria & Pub locations staffed feels like a scene in a movie for owner Ray Worrell. 

Specifically, it reminds him of the scene in Avengers: Infinity War, where half of the world’s population disappears. Worrell described a process of interviewing and hiring applicants who never show up for their first day of work or stop showing up after a few days on the job. 

“It was hard before the pandemic to get help, and now it’s even harder,” he said. 

Carson Jewell, executive chef at manna, said the restaurant hasn’t had an eligible applicant for back-of-house positions in the past year. Until one materializes, Jewell said all members of his kitchen crew are working every day the restaurant is open.

“We’re pretty much running on bones, but that’s OK. We have enough people to make the line work and mainly, that extra weight goes on me so everybody else is happy,” Jewell said. 

Many industries have started to recover from the roiling effect the pandemic had on the labor market, but nearly three years after the first wave of the pandemic struck, many restaurants remain understaffed. On top of that, the industry continues to navigate supply chain disruptions and rising food costs, according to Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association.

“Coming out of COVID, we’re still facing a lot of headwinds,” Minges said. 

The N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association (NCRLA) is one of a handful of state and local groups introducing new solutions this year aimed at reviving the service sector’s workforce. With $5 million of American Rescue Plan funding in hand, the organization is set to unveil a statewide recruitment initiative early this year that will help attract and retain hospitality workers. Development of the initiative began last year, when the group launched a research effort to map out the labor landscape, gathering information through roundtable discussions and focus groups with employers as well as former, current and potential employees. 

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Minges said. “We don’t want to move forward with any preconceived assumptions.”

This research has informed the strategy behind the campaign, which Minges said will utilize a “really concerted way of outreach and information to help people understand the career opportunities that are available in the industry.”

One of the local stakeholders at the NCRLA’s roundtable discussion in Wilmington last year was Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority. Tourists have flocked to the Wilmington area in record numbers over the past couple of years, with the highest-ever collection of room occupancy taxes tallied during the 2021-22 fiscal year. Short-staffed hotels and restaurants have tried to provide the best service possible to visitors, Hufham said, noting that visitors seem to be understanding of the issues. 

“I think people are learning to be a little more patient with it, but it definitely affects the level of service and the number of people that they’re able to service,” Hufham said.

Hotels appear to be rebounding from workforce shortages, Hufham observed, while the recovery for restaurants is slower. However, a new program at Cape Fear Community College could ease staff shortages at local restaurants by providing an infusion of qualified entry-level line cooks for area kitchens this year. 

That was, at least, the impetus for the program’s creation. Ellie Craig, marketing manager at Front Street Brewery and board member of the Wilmington Area Hospitality Association, was brainstorming possible solutions to what she described as a “mass exodus” of the local kitchen workforce when she remembered CFCC’s creation of an expedited program for electrical lineworkers following Hurricane Florence.

“It just hit me,” Craig said, “if we can do this with electricians, why can’t we do this with line cooks?”

Craig worked with the community college’s Economic and Workforce Development division, and in December, the new Culinary Foundations course started accepting applications. The program offers a 16-week crash course in the basic professional skills needed for a successful culinary career. The first cohort begins the program this month and finishes in May. 

There are no specific initiatives in the pipeline from New Hanover County at this time, but as the county worked to revamp its economic development strategy last year, it gathered feedback from the service sector to weave into future actions.

Consultants hired to help guide the county’s economic development strategy in 2014 and again last year have not typically identified the tourism industry as one of the county’s targeted sectors, noted chief strategy officer Jennifer Rigby, but the county wanted to include it in recognition of the important role it plays in the local economy. 

“We certainly learned a lot during COVID about the importance and the value of these particular jobs in our community, and so we wanted to have some conversations with stakeholders about these particular sectors and what they were experiencing,” Rigby said. 

Discussions with stakeholders wrapped up in December, and common concerns listed by Rigby included a lack of affordable housing and child care for hospitality workers. This feedback will inform future actions the county takes, she added. 

“As the county moves forward with any strategies we do,” Rigby said, “we really try to listen to our community members and engage with the appropriate stakeholders.”

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