By Jak Krouse
Southern Inn, Lexington’s oldest restaurant, closed this past summer partially because too few people wanted to work there.
George Huger, co-owner of the Main Street restaurant, said it was becoming too hard to find people he could count on. Now he rents out the space and caters to large events.
“There’s a disparity between what workers demand and the market reality,” Huger said. “And there’s always someone out there that can pay more.”
Increasing pay is one potential solution for employers, but it can result in increased costs for the customer. “There’s only so much people will pay for a hamburger,” Huger said.
Open jobs stay open
The tight supply of workers is a national and statewide issue. Virginia has an average of only 57 available workers for every 100 open jobs, according to a September report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobbying group in the country. Unemployment in Rockbridge County is 2.8%, which is 1% lower than the national rate.
In Rockbridge County, 175 new employees were hired in the food and lodging industry during the months of October, November and December of 2022, according to the county’s most recent economic profile. No other industry hired that many people during that time.
The number of open jobs in Rockbridge County is going to rise as establishments like Dunkin, Chick-fil-A and a Tru by Hilton hotel move in during the next 6 months.
“Those positions will be filled,” said Rockbridge County Economic Development Director Brandy Flint. “But it may take some time, and how fast depends on how much they’re paying.”
For hourly workers, there’s more jobs to choose from and higher paychecks available. Jennifer Moore left her job at Dairy Queen making $8.50 an hour during the pandemic. Now she works more hours at 7-Eleven and Subway, which pay her $13 an hour.
Virginia’s minimum wage is $12 an hour. Some employers, including Washington & Lee University, are advertising jobs starting at $17.10 an hour.
Businesses try other methods
To stay on top of the labor shortage, John Gomes, general manager of the George’s, said he raised employee wages, but declined to be specific. Local hotel job postings on Indeed.com offer $12 to $17 an hour. Gomes said that he believes the traditional system of compensation may be flawed.
“Now our pay is based on performance and responsibilities,” Gomes said. “You don’t have to wait x number of years to get a pay increase. If someone is good at their role, we reward them.”
Gomes is more optimistic about new competition for workers.
“Someone may drive to Lexington to work at Chick-fil-A and then decide to come over and work at the George’s,” Gomes said. “The more exposure Lexington has, the better it is for all of us.”
Some employees are filling jobs with more interns. Pure Eats owner Kasey Potter has hired four interns from Rockbridge County High Schools Career and Technical Education programs to help staff her kitchen.
“I think there’s a ton of businesses that could benefit from that,” Potter said. “It’s great. They come here with most of the skill sets they need.”