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After two years of pandemic-driven short staffing, Northeast Ohio hopes for a better summer

Hiring sign at Lock 3
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
At a recent concert at Lock 3, an epicenter of summer events in Akron, a hiring sign advertising the $15 per hour wage greeted concert-goers on the lawn.

On a recent Friday night in downtown Akron, dozens of people braved the drizzle and set up umbrellas on the lawn of Lock 3 park for its first “Rock the Lock” concert of the summer.

As local musical duo Sunflurry prepared to perform, announcers encouraged the concert-goers to take advantage of the concessions stand and bar.

Rain or shine, Lock 3 is the epicenter for summer events in Akron – and with that comes the need for part-time workers to run concessions, set up events and clean up afterward.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s been a challenge according to Lock 3 Manager Chris Griffith.

“[It’s been] hard to find staffing,” Griffith said. “We used a lot of different employees throughout the city to just put on the events that we normally host down here.”

Concession employees Ashley S. (left) and Callia Roberts take a customer's order at a recent Lock 3 event.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Concession employees Ashley S. (left) and Callia Roberts take a customer's order at a Lock 3 concert on May 27, 2022.

Last year, they often didn’t have enough people to work various events, and had to scramble to ask city employees from the parks and recreation department to help, Griffith added.

This summer, however, things are off to a better start.

“Our numbers are actually up this year than they were last year. So, we used to have 40 seasonal employees that came down, and right now we're about 25 and still interviewing. So, we’re excited to see,” Griffith said.

Community centers and pools are kicking off their summer events as well. However, officials in some Northeast Ohio cities have warned they won’t be able to open all of their pools due to a lifeguard shortage.

The city of Mentor only opened one pool this year,and Summit County Metroparks closed swimming at several lakes for good – due in part to staffing shortages.

That’s not the case in Akron, where parks and rec staff said they already have 10 lifeguards hired for the city’s three pools, and only need about five more guards, said Rachel Roukey, director of wellness programs for the city.

One reason for this might be that they’ve offered some free lifeguard training courses – which usually cost $250, she said.

“If you're looking for a summer job, to dish out $250 just to take a class just to get a job, that was, you know, prohibiting some people,” Roukey said. “We've had one class; we got one lifeguard out of that. So, we're hoping to get a handful more out of this next class that starts in June.”

Perhaps the biggest reason they are able to find sufficient help this year, Roukey added, can be found in a big red font on the signs advertising the lifeguard positions: $15 per hour pay.

Community center coordinator Jeff Mourton, who handles hiring and human resources for the department, points to a move by Mayor Dan Horrigan last year that raised the minimum wage for all seasonal part-time employees.

“I think we've done a little bit better job recruiting as well, because we kind of had to,” Mourton said. “I don't think it's what it was in 2019, but I think it's definitely getting better, and I think the $15 an hour really makes a difference.”

A flyer at Akron's Balch Street Fitness facility advertises the $15 per hour pay for lifeguards and other part-time seasonal employees.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
A flyer at Akron's Balch Street Fitness facility advertises the $15 per hour pay for lifeguards and other part-time seasonal employees.

Businesses still struggling with staffing

While raising wages seemed to help the city of Akron bounce back from its seasonal staffing challenges, some businesses that rely on summer help might not be able to offer as high of pay.

Places now have to compete with bigger companies that raised their minimum wage for part-time work, which was not the case before the pandemic, said Jacob Duritsky of Team NEO, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that works with hundreds of Northeast Ohio businesses.

“You can’t pay $7.15 an hour anymore. Now you’re competing with $12, $13, $14 an hour. And that wage pressure has been going up throughout the entire pandemic,” Duritsky said.

One example of this, he added, was when Cedar Point raised its wages to $20 an hour last summer when they were struggling to hire enough employees.

Additionally, high school and college students – who make up much of the seasonal workforce - are the hardest to hire and retain right now, according to Team NEO’s research.

While they’re conducting additional research to try to figure out why, one theory is that younger people are focusing on internships and career-building, Duritsky added.

“A lot of young people right now are taking their time that they have off and they’re very focused on sort of the extracurricular nature of what they want to do,” he said. “There are less people that are just taking that summer job.”

Akron's advantage
To Akron’s advantage, Lock 3 Manager Chris Griffith said many students who go to the University of Akron stay in the city for the summer and look for seasonal jobs at Lock 3 and city parks.

Concert-goers set up umbrellas for a recent rainy 'Rock the Lock' event at Lock 3 in downtown Akron.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Concert-goers set up umbrellas for a rainy 'Rock the Lock' event at Lock 3 in downtown Akron on May 27, 2022.

Just like other businesses that rely on seasonal help, Lock 3 staff have learned how to make it work if they don’t have enough for a particular event, he added. He hopes people will be patient again this summer.

“We’ll just get creative. We, you know, might have a little bit longer of a line, but hopefully people are patient, and most people have been understanding with staffing issues,” Griffith said.

Lock 3 concerts are held every weekend through September, and Akron’s pools open June 6.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.