Employee shortage felt around lake area as tourism season draws near

Mitch Prentice
Lake Sun Leader
A sign outside of Pizza Hut in Eldon reads “Now Hiring 4 All Positions.”

Many around the lake are gearing up for what is expected to be another busy summer season. Though foot traffic and tourism may remain at high levels, many lake area businesses are finding it difficult to staff their operations. 

New weekly unemployment claims in Missouri, a proxy for layoffs, increased last week compared with the week prior, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday. New claims rose to 10,515 in the week ending April 10, up from 9,580 the week before, the labor department said.

Last year at this time, there were 102,126 new claims in Missouri as businesses closed their doors and laid-off workers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Director Paige Jones says that it feels like everyone is struggling with employment at this point. However, this isn’t a recent issue. Jones says it stems all the way back to the closing months of 2020. At its core, Jones believes the problem isn’t availability of jobs, but rather affordable housing. 

When college students and people looking to come to the area during the summer head this way, having affordable housing and low-cost apartments, condos and more is crucial to businesses in the area. Not only does it allow for more people to live and inject money into the economy, but it also gives businesses many more opportunities to hire temporary workers for the summer.

Cities across the lake are working on this, as the need for affordable housing is always a problem. Lake Ozark, for example, has been working on a ‘tiny house’ project for the better part of a year, going as far as to approve a Special Use Permit to begin construction near School Road this year. At the time, Lake Ozark was the first community in the lake area to tweak its Municipal Code to allow for the construction of tiny homes to address an affordable housing shortage. Typically, zoning regulations don’t allow residential buildings of less than 1,100 square feet. Tiny homes usually range from 300-800 square feet.

With these challenges in mind, Jones is still confident that the lake will persevere. She believes that the last year tested the lake and saw it come out stronger. The challenges presented in 2021 will test the area as well. The Chamber continues to host job fairs and work with local hiring agencies to promote the workforce around the lake. For those interested, a new job fair will be held April 25 from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Lodge of the Four Seasons. 

Though the Chamber plays a big role in the lake’s economy, local business owners are truly who are feeling the hiring strain the most. Eldon area business owner Shannon Imler, who owns Ice Cream Factory and SPI Enterprises, says he has felt both sides of the problem. On the side of SPI, he is seeing great retention in his workforce. SPI provides career opportunities and has much less need for constant hiring. However, at the Ice Cream Factory, the story is different. The business hires many younger workers, many of which cycle in and out of positions throughout the year. 

Imler says he is constantly hiring new employees for this business and receives hundreds of applications weekly. However, very few of these applicants actually show up for interviews. Imler worries that unemployment benefits are leading to fewer workers actually willing to take a job. He assumes that many of these applicants are simply submitting applications to fill requirements necessary for unemployment pay. 

Imler says that the lake is doing well, and the real estate side of his ventures are selling at a record pace. But he too sees the affordable housing market as an issue even in Eldon. This mixed with unemployment pay being cushioned by COVID is leading to trouble finding short-term workers. 

George Tucker, who owns local lake businesses such as Paradise Tropical Restaurant & Bar, Tucker's Shuckers Oyster & Tap, the Malted Monkey and more, has had a different experience so far this season. He says he has certainly heard other business owner’s plight in finding work, but his hiring has been steady. 

Tucker credits much of his hiring success to maintaining a well-kept work environment that keeps people around. He says that his businesses have offered to help with housing for staff to keep them around and many of his hiring base comes from recommendations made by current employees. 

“I’m not stressed about workers this season. It doesn’t seem any worse to me than it’s ever been,” Tucker said.

Though hiring hasn’t been the main concern of Tucker’s businesses, he too has seen many applicants not showing for interviews. He says that around 50% of applications received results in no-shows for interviews. Luckily, his need for workers isn’t as dire, but the trend goes to show that this issue is being felt around the lake. 

Until increased unemployment benefits end towards the later half of 2021, it’s hard to say if that correlation is correct. For now, it remains certain that hiring at the lake is in an uncertain spot.