Workers are still needed despite months of Boeing Co. layoffs
By BRYAN CORLISS
EVERETT — There’s a ton of work stacking up back at the office, Susan Petroskie said with a sigh.
The current menu needs tweaking, said Petroskie, the executive chef for the three-restaurant Lombardi’s Cuccina chain. She really needs to spend some time reviewing costs, to make sure they’re still making money on each dish. And she’s falling behind on planning the special menu for the fast-approaching holiday season.
Instead, on this recent weekday, she’s here in the kitchen, training a newly hired chef and helping him prepare for the lunch rush. The restaurant, after all, is still short two cooks and is having a hard time finding replacements.
"I should be doing everything but what I’m doing right now," Petroskie said.
The problem, she added, is an enduring shortage of qualified workers in Snohomish County.
The sign of the times reads "Help Wanted." Jobless rates are low, and angst among hiring managers is high, as they try to attract ever-more-demanding skilled labor.
"For us, trying to hire somebody, it’s pretty tight," said Bill Viehmann, the engineering manager at Telecom Network Specialist in Snohomish. "I talk to the people over at GTE (now Verizon) headquarters daily and they’re having the same problem."
He’s trying to fill a $30-an-hour job for a telecommunications engineer. He’s been advertising for two weeks, but so far, no fully qualified applicants have surfaced, he said.
It’s a common problem across Snohomish County, said Donna Thompson, a state labor market analyst based in Everett.
Unemployment rates in the county have hovered just over 3.5 percent for the past four months, she said, adding, "We’ve got virtually full employment."
And, uniquely in recent county history, unemployment rates have stayed low, even though Boeing was laying off workers.
That’s because other sectors of the area’s economy have continued to grow, Thompson said. The county’s companies have added 6,300 jobs over the past two years.
And those who couldn’t find jobs close to home have had no trouble getting work down I-5 in King County, where the job market is even tighter, Thompson added.
The result, managers are working harder to find workers, and to pick up the slack when they can’t find replacements.
"I’ve been in the business 25 years and this has been the hardest two years I’ve ever put in," said Diane Symms, Petroskie’s boss and the chief executive of Lombardi’s.
The tight labor market has changed workers’ attitudes toward their jobs, said John Dienhart, who holds an endowed chair in business ethics at Seattle University.
Loyalty to the company is gone, the victim of corporate cost-cutting over the past decade, which translated into higher profits but lower job security, Dienhart said.
Instead, workers are being more demanding of their employers, he said. They want better pay and benefits, of course, but they also want time to spend with family and friends, and they want a positive working environment.
"People really want to work in nice places," Dienhart said. "The good businesses are going to realize they want to hold onto their best employees. If you have a marginal organizational environment, the good people are going to leave and you’re going to be stuck with the people who (aren’t good enough) to move on."
Petroskie and Symms say they want to keep their good people. Lombardi’s offers health insurance, 401(k) retirement plans, free meals, uniforms and competitive pay: $7.50 an hour for entry-level dishwashers, for example. Experienced waitpersons can easily make $20 an hour in tips and wages, Symms said.
But they keep losing people to corporate food service contractors, who provide cooks and staff for cafeterias at places like Boeing, Petroskie said. The attraction: Corporate cafeteria jobs are pretty much 8-to-5, while the restaurant business is all nights and weekends.
"They want to spend time with their families," Petroskie said. "You can’t blame them."
More local businesses might lose workers to Boeing in coming months.
The company has seen a surge in orders this year, has ended major layoffs among production workers and has recalled several hundred former workers to their old jobs. The company hasn’t made any formal announcements about new hiring, but the signs are pointing that way, Thomas said.
And if they start recalling in earnest, that undoubtedly is going to cause ripples in the county labor pool, she said. "It all depends on how many people they need and how fast they need them."
But with general labor in short supply — and skilled labor even more scarce — where will the workers come from?
Businesses might want to start recruiting amid the traffic jams on I-5, Thomas said. There are anywhere from 90,000 to 100,000 county residents commuting each day to jobs in King County, she said.
"There are enough people here in the county to staff Boeing, if they weren’t all driving to King County," Thomas said. "There doesn’t have to be a labor shortage. It’s just that they leave every morning."
Petroskie isn’t sure. Lombardi’s typically finds it harder to find qualified workers here in Everett than at its Issaquah or Ballard locations, even though the pay in Everett is better.
It’s just that there’s a smaller pool of skilled restaurant workers here, compared to in the city, she said.
It’s 11 a.m. and Petroskie already looks tired, especially after the hostess informs her the first large group — 15 people — is due in a half hour.
What’s the solution? "I don’t know," she said.
"It seems to have intensified over the last year," she said. "Maybe it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I sure hope not."
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