Employers get creative to fill jobs in North Bay market with too few workers

A plethora of jobs, yet not enough qualified workers to fill them. And with unemployment numbers continuing to drop, finding resourceful ways to recruit and retain employees has become a priority for many businesses in the North Bay.

July's unemployment rates tell the latest story: Five of the North Bay's six counties fell below the state's overall unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department. Marin County had the lowest unemployment rate in the North Bay, at 2.5 percent; followed by 2.9 percent in both Napa and Sonoma counties. Lake County reported the region's highest unemployment rate, at 5 percent, while Mendocino County's unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.

'The challenge for most industries is to find workers in entry level or lower-wage positions, such as retail, hospitality and restaurants, due to the high cost of living in the North Bay,' said Brenda Gilchrist, co-founder of The HR Matrix LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Santa Rosa.

That assessment rings true for Petaluma-based Amy's Kitchen, which operates processing plants in several states, including one in Santa Rosa; as well as Amy's Drive Thru, its fast-food restaurant in Rohnert Park.

Amy's hiring needs run the gamut, from general manufacturing and agriculture positions, to construction labor and restaurant staffing, among other positions, said Cindy Gillespie, vice president of human resources.

The company searches for job candidates in the typical fashion — staffing agencies, recruiting platforms, its own website, social media and job fairs — while simultaneously recognizing it's up against the same deterrents as its competitors.

'One of the biggest challenges we face when recruiting new talent is housing accessibility,' Gillespie said. 'Because of this, we have really focused our search on finding local talent throughout the Bay Area.'

The company looks inward, as well.

'We also feel our employees are good sources for candidates; great people know great people,' Gillespie said. 'We pay our team members a $500 referral bonus for new hires that are employed with us for at least 90 days.'

Another recruiting solution, albeit short term, is to entice people not currently in the workforce to come back, said Robert Eyler, Ph.D., dean of the School of Extended and International Education at Sonoma State University.

'In many cases, these 'new' workers will fill low-skilled jobs, where wages have increased enough to draw (them) back to the labor force and provide employers more choice,' Eyler said.

Longer term, he said, work must be done to expand housing inventory and affordability. As of July, the average cost of a home in Napa was $661,100, compared with the national average of $218,000, according to real estate company Zillow Group's market data. And the loss of more than 6,000 homes in October's wildfires has likely contributed to higher prices both in Napa and Sonoma counties, according to The Press Democrat.

Some businesses, however, can work around the housing constraint.

For example, Serres Corporation, a general engineering contractor in Sonoma Valley with farming and ranching operations, houses its field workers, according to Taylor Serres, who oversees the agricultural division of the fifth-generation family business.

'Because it's so competitive out there, the only way you can keep employees is by providing them housing,' Taylor Serres said, adding that all living expenses other than groceries are also provided. That includes electric and utility bills, not yet the norm for the industry, but moving in that direction, she said. 'That's the cherry on top.'

The pay range for Serres Corporation's agricultural division ranges between $15 and $40 per hour, and that's on top of housing, which all 15 of its full-time agricultural employees receive, Taylor Serres said.

'We have a good retention rate as far as people enjoying working for us,' she said, adding that the longest-serving employee has been with the company for 30 years. 'He's been around even longer than I've been alive.'

Taylor Serres' brother, John Serres, also a millennial, oversees the construction division of the business. He said his own generation of workers are often the most challenging to retain.

'The work ethic in the upcoming crop just isn't there … too many video games and not enough blood, sweat and tears,' he said. Growing up in the family business, he started working when he was 8 years old. 'We didn't have an allowance. If we wanted money, we went to work.'

John Serres said he has found his best employees through referrals. That includes three full-time truck drivers, who are paid between $30 and $34 per hour, pay rates that help with retention, he said.

The construction division of Serres Corporation offers 100-percent paid health care for its workers, along with a 401(k) retirement plan and an end-of-year bonus, he said.

'We're kind of competing against the union in some aspects,' John Serres said. 'I think in the nonunion sector, people don't have as good a package as we do.'

Still, he noted, the No. 1 driver for recruiting and retaining top-notch employees is pay.

'Pay rates are important, perhaps most important, to both job seekers and your current employees,' said Nicole Smartt, vice president of Petaluma-based Star Staffing. 'Understanding pay rates within your industry, for every position, is vital to attracting and retaining the best candidates.'

Businesses that are open to hiring and investing in job candidates with less experience can also come out on the winning end, said Gilchrist.

'Employers should be creative and look at ways to develop their own talent pipelines,' she said. 'Strategies (include) investing in trainee, apprentice and/or mentor programs, and developing partnerships with universities and trade schools.'

One such entity is the Workforce Alliance of the North Bay, a regional workforce policy board formed in 2016, which partners with employers throughout the area to help solve hiring needs.

'We recognize businesses are facing hiring challenges and aren't finding staff with the right skills needed to help them grow and stay competitive,' said Bruce Wilson, executive director of the alliance.

The organization works with local businesses in multiple industries to customize services to match employers' training needs, he said.

'One such program the Hospitality Industry Partnership created is 'Resort to Opportunity,' where two hotels created internships for 12 high-school students to learn all areas of hospitality,' Wilson said.

As a result of the training, the Napa hotels — Meritage Resort & Spa and Silverado Resort & Spa — hired all students at the end of the internship, he said.

'Employers that think outside the box to hire will prevail,' Gilchrist said.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

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