Hampton Roads employers struggling to find workers offer hiring incentives

It’s a good time to be looking for a job in Hampton Roads.

Depending on the field, hiring bonuses are reaching into the hundreds and thousands of dollars. Employers are increasing wages to compete for workers in high-demand positions. And as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, they’ll want to venture out, increasing the workload at restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

“I think for the individual, it’s a promising time right now, especially if you have the skill sets that are in demand. You are going to be a hot commodity,” said Shawn Avery, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council.

Stimulus checks, while helping people through the coronavirus pandemic, may be keeping some people out of the workforce, Shawn Avery said. At the same time, employers are adjusting wages as Virginia’s minimum wage increases from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 an hour on May 1.

“We are seeing wages going up because there is a competition for talent,” he said.

Several regional employers say they’re having trouble attracting workers or getting them to show up, with some alluding to workers staying home and collecting jobless benefits instead. Avery said the Virginia Employment Commission reinstating the weekly job search requirement for those collecting unemployment benefits in the coming weeks may help. The requirement has been suspended during the pandemic.

The Virginia Workforce Connection is advertising 527,000 jobs across the state, including more than 8,000 in Hampton Roads, VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg said. For comparison, in April 2019, the jobs board had about 32,000 job openings statewide and 4,368 in Hampton Roads.

Restaurants

Chanello’s Pizza has been offering a $500 signing bonus for delivery drivers throughout the pandemic at all its regional corporate locations and is hiring for all positions and as many as the company can get, said Ashley Sickles, office and accounting manager. The pizza business runs ads daily and gets leads, but then no one shows up to work.

“Our sales have drastically increased, which is a blessing, however, we cannot find delivery drivers to save our lives,” she said.

Sonic Drive-In said it’s hiring 126 positions in the region with flexible schedules. Taco Bell is holding “hiring parties” Wednesday at restaurants in the region to fill about 275 local positions. (For more information: https://jobs.tacobell.com/.)

Stacey Shiflet, executive director of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association, said she sees “hiring now” signs and banners on lots of business windows or marquees while driving around town.

“Pretty much every one of our restaurant members is hiring,” she said. “The jobs are definitely there.”

The association has been participating in job fairs and Facebook events and is planning a large virtual hospitality job fair along with the Virginia Beach Hotel Association and the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau on May 6. Get info on the job fair at dineinvb.com.

Hotels

LTD Hospitality Group, which operates 10 hotels in the region, is offering a $100 signing bonus for hourly new hires and $400 for employee referrals, said Elizabeth Parker, general manager of the Holiday Inn Newport News at City Center.

Two hotels have held hybrid virtual and in-person job fairs where no one showed up, which is unheard of, said John Zirkle, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association. In addition to hiring incentives, hotels also offer benefit packages, but still are having trouble.

And it’s not just one position — every level from cooks and servers to housekeepers to the front desk and bellhops is in need, he said.

“It’s probably one of the toughest labor markets I’ve dealt with in my 20-plus years in the hotel business,” Zirkle said. “It’s brutal.”

Virginia Beach hotel and restaurant operator Gold Key/PHR saw success with its aggressive recruiting, including sign-on bonuses from $250 to $400 for high-demand positions, and is planning to wind those incentives down, said Chuck Sass, executive vice president of food and beverage. While the pandemic has created some hardships, it’s been able to open up opportunities for promotions and those looking to build their careers.

Gold Key/PHR is seeing more demand in its culinary departments, or for cooks and dishwashers, and service and staff support than it is for tipped positions, Sass said. The company is adjusting pay in needed areas, including raising pay from roughly $10 hourly to $12-$14 an hour for hard-to-fill entry-level positions. Employees also were able to get incentives for referring workers.

“Our best marketing is our own associates,” Sass said. “There’s a lot of competition out there. You have to position yourself to attract the best talent.”

Timing of the ramping up of staff is also on the minds of restaurants and banquet hall operators, said Jermaine Boothe, owner of Elite Culinary Staffing in Norfolk. They want to have the workers in place in time before it gets busy, but don’t want the financial crunch of trying to keep more workers on the payroll before business picks up. Many cut staff because of pandemic restrictions and many of those workers moved on to other jobs, he said.

“Everyone is in a crunch time trying to get staff back up to where they were pre-COVID,” Boothe said.

Shipyards and more hiring

And it’s not just food service and hotels experiencing the struggle to fill jobs. The maritime industry had always been looking to fill positions, along with health care, and others, Avery said.

Newport News Shipbuilding plans to hire more than 2,200 positions this year, including about 1,200 trade workers like welders, ship fitters, deck electricians, and painters/insulators, and about 940 salaried workers in the areas of engineering and design, nuclear propulsion, quality and integrated planning and production control, company spokesperson Duane Bourne said.

The shipyard is offering incentives like sign-on bonuses for specific hard-to-fill positions, like $2,500 to qualified job seekers for specific trade positions with active security clearances, he said. Newport News Shipbuilding, which employs more than 25,000 workers, has no immediate plans to rehire the more than 300 salaried staff laid off in February.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth is offering hiring bonuses up to $7,500 for information technology specialists and up to $15,000 for contract specialists with two-year agreements, according to nnsy.jobs. Welders, electrician mechanics and machinists can get up to $10,000.

Interim HealthCare in Newport News and Virginia Beach hasn’t had as much trouble finding nurses and occupational, physical and speech therapists as it has finding certified nursing assistants and personal care aides, said Lacey Monroe, regional director of recruiting and retention.

She understands people’s hesitance about going into homes during the pandemic. Job candidates often “ghost” her by making it through the hiring process but then not showing up for orientation. Caregivers are in short supply nationwide, she said. The business has been offering training and $100 sign-on bonuses for caregivers since February.

“It’s very frustrating — 100%,” Monroe said.

Tara Bozick, 757-247-4741, tbozick@insidebiz.com