The South Carolina Department of Public Safety was one of 18 employers seeking job applicants at the Aug. 18 job fair at St. Luke’s Church on Hilton Head Island. ROB CUSHMAN

In March 2020, the unemployment rate in Beaufort County was 2.8%. The next month, unemployment was at 10.7% and since then has fluctuated between 6.6% and 2.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton-Beaufort statistical area.

An online search for jobs available in Beaufort County shows more than 100 listed, from administrative assistant to wildlife control technician, from full-service restaurants to residential facilities and a donut shop. Employers are feeling the pinch, and customers are on the receiving end when stores, restaurants and other businesses cut their hours.

Small businesses offer as much compensation as they can, but still an employee shortage can turn a small restaurant into a carryout food service.

Mindi Meyaard, owner of the popular Lunch Lady in the Okatie Riverwalk Business Park has had to serve through the front door.

“Our number one need is staffing, and it’s not being met. And products. It’s very hard at this point to get products,” Meyaard said as she talked between handing out bagged meals to customers. “Staffing has been a huge part of it now. We are back to take out because we can’t get staff to show up for interviews or show up for work when they are hired.”

The small restaurant requires staff to do the usual food service duties that include answering phone for carryout, bagging carry-out orders, delivery of curbside pickup orders to vehicles, and assisting other team members when necessary. Meyaard has tried all the usual outlets for getting employees but continues to have challenges.

“I put multiple things on Facebook, and Lowcountry Jobs, and basically we’ve had people come for interviews or call, and basically all they want to know is how much they’re going to make,” she said.

Meyaard said the company has raised wages to attract more potential employees, but “even after I hired people they still don’t show up. I have no idea why,” she said.

Lunch Lady doesn’t have the usual benefits package that larger businesses might offer, but there are pluses to working there.

“We luckily have been around for 14 years and stay busy, and when we are open we stay quite busy, so they make really good money. Right now it’s the best money you can possibly make in restaurants,” said Meyaard.

The lunch spot isn’t open weekends and holidays, Meyaard said, and the Monday to Friday hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. should be attractive for someone who wants to be able to get home in time to be with their family.

“To be honest I would love to know why it’s become so hard to find employees,” Meyaard said. “But, at this point we take it as it comes, and adjust to what comes each day. We’re just lucky we’re still here.”

In the 25 years Becky Jennings has been in human resources, she has never seen hiring this hard. She is the HR manager for TICO Manufacturing, a company that builds terminal tractors for port services in Ridgeland, and is headquartered in Savannah.

“We have orders for now through October of next year. We also have a division where we lease the vehicles to the Port of Savannah,” said Jennings. “We’ve been in Jasper County since the mid-80s.”

TICO currently has 160 employees and is planning to add 40 to 55 more on the manufacturing side. In terminal services – the leasing part – there are currently about 30 openings. Jennings said they are looking for all kinds of skills that don’t require a college degree.

“We are working with companies to get internships and apprenticeships so we can train our own work force. We already have a partnership with Technical College of the Lowcountry and Apprenticeship Carolina, which has scholarships available to train,” said Jennings. “We need assembly workers and material handlers in Jasper. In port services, we’re looking for mechanics, service technicians, truck washers, diagnostic techs. We’re adding a second shift to keep up with demand, and we’re really struggling to find employees.”

TICO has used just about every avenue available trying to reach potential employees, from raising their minimum wage for those coming in the door, posting radio ads, reaching out to employees from other companies that have closed, advertising in places such as Garden City and Charleston, but the struggle continues.

“Everybody’s needing employees right now. Sometimes they show up an interview and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the makeup of the individual,” Jennings said. “It’s not like it used to be where you stay with a company for a long time. People will change jobs for 50 cents an hour. Employees can write their own check these days. It is basically an employees’ market.”

Like everyone else who is out and about these days, Jennings has encountered the same local customer issues with coffee shops closed, restaurants closing early, and limited hours on pharmacies. Other folks have seen disruption in similar businesses, including shoe stores and even the bigger fast food restaurants – all because of an employee shortage, whether it is caused by COVID or other illnesses or just a shortage of employees.

“My thought process is if we don’t up our game for employees coming in the door, with salaries, benefits, a reward for coming in, we’re going to continue to have this problem,” Jennings said.

Rob Cushman would also love to know why people aren’t looking for jobs. He and a number of volunteers coordinated and organized a job fair at St. Luke’s Church on Hilton Head Island in August. He said representatives from 18 companies were available to interview as many people as would show up.

The event took as a template a format perfected by Better Together, a national nonprofit that organizes job fair to match local employers with job seekers from all walks of life.

“The job fair focused on three areas. First were those who were unemployed and had not had the opportunity for seeking employment, were intimidated or afraid to do it, or possibly they had only interviewed with a single company. We gave them the opportunity to view 18 companies,” Cushman said. “The second group were people who had an entry level job or a job that was below their qualifications, and they wanted to find a better job. The third group were what we call reentry or second chance. These are people who – because of past issues – were prohibited from getting a job or not getting a good job. And all of the employers who came understood that part of the candidates were from this category of second-chancers.”

Cushman said about 20 volunteers joined the effort and served as job coach, hospitality volunteer, employer recruiter and community outreach coordinator, and did all of the work necessary to prepare for and put on the fair.

TICO’s Jennings was one of the representatives at the job fair. She said she got some good leads.

“It gave this sort of broad brush for employees to look at more than one type of job, and look at more than one sector. I was hoping that we would get many job seekers,” said Cushman. “We had only about 12 to 14 who showed up, and everybody either got a job offer or a second interview.”

Cushman said that if just one person got a job, the organizers would call the fair a success.

He said that he expects to hold more job fairs, and after a debrief with the volunteers and more consultation with Better Together, they’ll make some changes, such as changing the time of day, holding the fair in a more central location, and partnering with other local churches.

“I have heard of job fairs that had no one come, so I count us fortunate. I think it was life changing to the job seekers but I think for the volunteers they felt it was really worth their time,” said Cushman. “We did touch the lives of everybody who came. All of the job seekers who did get an interview were very happy, and it changed their lives. And I just wish we could have changed more lives.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.