By Donald Wittkowski
Yes, Mike Monichetti needs lobsters, clams, crabs, shrimp and fish for his seafood business in Sea Isle City.
But there is something else he covets at his Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant for the upcoming summer season.
A big sign in the front window of Mike’s Seafood and another sign on the sidewalk make it clear what Monichetti is looking for: “Help Wanted,” declares one sign. “Summer Employment Opportunities,” says the other.
Although the traditional start of the busy tourism season at the Jersey Shore doesn’t arrive until Memorial Day weekend, Sea Isle business owners are already recruiting summer workers. This year, some of them started their search extra early in hopes of hiring the most qualified and experienced workers.
“Every year seems to be a bigger challenge in finding summer employees,” Monichetti said.
Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, agreed with Monichetti that it is becoming increasingly difficult for local businesses to hire and retain enough workers to carry them through the summer.
With only so many workers to go around, businesses are essentially vying for the same employees, Glancey noted. He said it’s not unusual to see “Help Wanted” signs throughout the entire summer season, not just at the start.
“There’s a limited number of workers. We’re all competing for the same ones,” Glancey said.
All of the Jersey Shore towns – not just Sea Isle – are facing the same problem, according to Glancey.
Monichetti said the labor shortage is so acute, he has been at summer job fairs where the businesses have outnumbered the people looking for work.
Over the years, shifting trends in the vacation market have caused the summer labor pool to shrink.
Previously, families would often spend their entire summer on vacation at the shore, allowing their teenage children to pick up some extra money working at local shops and restaurants. Now, families are taking shorter vacations, which means teenagers are no longer around for the entire summer for work, Glancey said.
Years ago, groups of college students would often rent an entire house for the summer. They would work in summer jobs for tuition money while sharing the “group homes.” But now, college students are finding it too expensive to rent in the Jersey Shore’s largely upscale real estate market, Glancey said.
Monichetti said another factor that has exacerbated the summer labor shortage is the length of the school year. Teenagers now end high school later in the year and head back to school earlier to prepare for fall sports, he pointed out.
Mike’s Seafood plans to hire 60 seasonal employees this summer, including cooks, counter help, food-prep staff and bus people to clean the tables.
A jobs flyer for Mike’s Seafood advertises a starting wage of between $12 and $16 per hour for cooks and counter help. Monichetti said he is willing to go up to $18 per hour for experienced cooks.
“We have raised the wage for our employees. Because of the dwindling workforce, it makes you pay more money,” he said.
New Jersey has increased the minimum wage this year. Under legislation signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, the minimum wage will rise each year until it hits $15 per hour in 2024.
This year, the minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour for most workers beginning in July. Seasonal workers, though, will see their pay increase on a slower timeline. They will receive their first wage increase at the beginning of 2020, when they will be eligible for a minimum of $10.30 per hour, according to news reports.
Monichetti, meanwhile, doesn’t stop his search for summer workers in the United States. In the past, he has scoured European countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia for college-aged workers. As an extra incentive, he supplies foreign workers with housing directly across the street from his Park Road restaurant in Sea Isle’s historic Fish Alley neighborhood.
Traditionally, Mike’s Seafood and other shore businesses have relied on foreign students carrying J-1 visas, which allow them to live and work in the United States during the summer. Monichetti said businesses are waiting to see whether President Donald Trump’s immigration policies will reduce the number of foreign workers.
Europeans usually can work longer during the summer than the American seasonal workers, who often must return to college or school as early as mid-August, Monichetti said. The Europeans, who hold temporary work and travel visas, help to fill the void during the transition from late summer to the shoulder season in September and October.
As the summer labor pool becomes tighter, employers have had to become more creative to find their workers. In the past, they could simply put out a “Help Wanted” sign and wait for people to walk through the door.
To find foreign workers, Monichetti advertises his job openings on European employment agency websites catering to college-aged students.
While he still uses traditional forms of advertising – such as the “Summer Employment Opportunities” sign in the window of his business – Monichetti has been relying more and more on social media and his company website www.mikesseafood.com to recruit summer help in recent years.
In the digital age, Glancey said the “Help Wanted” signs are frequently found online instead of in storefront windows. Facebook, Instagram and the job-hunting website Indeed.com are now popular choices among Sea Isle businesses searching for summer workers, he noted.