Restaurant Job Fair Finds Few Takers

HERMITAGE, Pa. – Ten Shenango Valley restaurants held a job fair Monday, but fewer than 10 people showed up to apply.

Operators of 10 short-staffed restaurants manned tables at the VFW Normandy Banquet Center in hopes of finding desperately needed help. All of them went home disappointed.

Pennsylvania CareerLink sponsored the Hermitage job fair and also one in Grove City at the same time. Both got the same weak response, said John Bunnell, program supervisor for the CareerLink Sharon office. 

The almost nonexistent turnout reflects a nationwide problem. As the pandemic eases and dining business returns, restaurant owners can’t find enough help. 

With more than an hour left in Monday’s job fair in Hermitage, half of the restaurants had packed up and left  because no one was coming in. Pennsylvania restaurants will be able to open their dining rooms to full capacity as of May 31, which can only make the situation worse, some of the restaurateurs said.

Jaeda Sasse of Sandy Lake, Pa., was one of the few attendees at the restaurant job fair in Hermitage.

Every restaurant owner interviewed at the job fair attributed the dearth of workers to the federal $300 per week unemployment bonus that is being paid on top of state jobless benefits. The federal benefits will expire Sept. 6, although two states – Montana and South Carolina – have taken steps to cancel it now.

William Weaver, owner of the Golden Corral steakhouse in Hermitage, also said former workers have left the area, enrolled at school or taken new jobs since the shutdown began. Among Weaver’s efforts to attract workers was a sign on his table that read, “$200 sign-on bonus” for new hires. He was able to land two new workers at the event.

“We’re competing with [the government],” Weaver said.

The Golden Corral has 23 employees now but needs to get back to its pre-pandemic level of 60, he said. Until it does, the restaurant will be unable to stay open seven days a week.

“We’re only open Thursday through Sunday now,” Weaver said, “because we don’t want to wear our people out. We’d rather take care of our people first, and then profits second.”

As staffing level rises and new hires get trained, Weaver will keep adding days until he’s back to seven.

Like all restaurants, Golden Corral had to close for a few weeks last spring and has been operating at reduced capacity ever since. 

“We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars [during the pandemic],” Weaver said. “In terms of sales, we are now at 47% of where we should be, but we’re only open four days a week.”

The first half-hour of Monday’s job fair was reserved exclusively for veterans but the result was the same, said Frank Zelinsky, CareerLink’s veterans employee representative for Lawrence and Mercer counties. 

“We did not get a good response,” he said. “They’re getting paid to stay home.”

CareerLink supervisor Bunnell noted that although the job fair was poorly attended, it was an opportunity to raise awareness of his agency, which connects Shenango Valley residents with jobs. His office is at 217 W. State St. in Sharon.

Laura Ackley, general manager of Donna’s Diner and Buhl Mansion, Spa and Guesthouse, both in Sharon, manned a table at the job fair from start to finish, but was unable to hire anyone on the spot. She needs to hire about 15 people across all of her properties but got just one solid applicant. By her count, only nine people stopped in all day.

Laura Ackley, general manager of Donna’s Diner and Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa, and William Moore, general manager of Tara – A Country Inn, were among those looking to hire at the job fair.

“The few people that had been through today had no hospitality background,” she said. “They didn’t appear to be looking for hospitality jobs or restaurant jobs.”

With the combination of state and federal unemployment benefits, the experienced workers “have been incentivized to stay home,” she said.

“We can’t get people to apply, and if they do, they don’t come in for an interview, and if you offer them a job they don’t come to work,” she said.

Buhl Mansion guesthouse is “setting records” for occupancy, Ackley said, a reflection of a national vacation trend for close-to-home getaways at smaller inns. But shorthanded staffing is a problem in that sector, too.

“We are turning room business away and we’re turning dining business away,” she said.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.