A workforce crisis on Hilton Head Island needs action from town leaders and employers alike.
As the newspaper’s four-part “Propping Up Paradise” series shows, hospitality workers — the life blood of the island’s tourism-based economy — are increasingly in short supply.
Some are finding jobs in Bluffton and beyond, where growth has produced many new employment opportunities. Others are being priced off the island as the last remnants of affordable housing disappear. And others are just throwing in the towel, fed up with five-hour commutes on public buses where they can’t even get a seat. Meanwhile, some of the island’s foreign student workers are being brought to the island through tricky recruitment, then used as cheap, seasonal labor.
The workforce crisis is likely to get worse. The continued growth of Bluffton paired with the development of a new port in Jasper County will increase competition for employee.
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These worker woes may seem insignificant to many on the island. But they’re not. Without the hourly workers, the island’s way of life — and reputation as a premier destination — are in jeopardy.
So what are those in charge doing to address the multi-faceted problem?
Not much. Town efforts to bring affordable housing to the island have stalled. Palmetto Breeze public buses have been allowed to overflow with workers. And many island employers are offering pay that isn’t keeping pace with inflation.
Now is the time for action before the competition swamps the island that has been the rainmaker for the local economy for 60 years. Leaders should act in three areas.
More public buses, more rural routes. We need more Palmetto Breeze buses, the public bus system that brings hundreds of workers from Allendale County and other poor counties and drops them at the doorsteps of their Hilton Head and Okatie employers. The additional buses must be paired with more routes that crisscross rural South Carolina. More buses and more routes would keep commuting workers coming to the island. And it might even encourage other workers to get on the bus too. The Town of Hilton Head Island wisely agreed this past spring to increase its contribution to Palmetto Breeze from $200,000 to $250,000 annually. Beaufort County and other local governments that directly benefit from this worker shuttle should follow suit. These governments might even consider chipping in for a few more buses too. Meanwhile, a survey will be conducted this fall to determine if and where additional routes should be added. The need for the the additions is abundantly apparent. Government should get on board.
Employers need to do their part. But it’s not just government that has a role to play. Far too many island employers are paying wages that are not even keeping up with inflation. The vast majority are not subsidizing bus tickets for their workers who ride hours to get to their jobs, paying about $6 a day out of pocket. (Kudos to The Sonesta Resort and Marriott Vacation Club that do help employees with bus fare.) And many who employ foreign student workers through the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program are not taking steps to ensure these young workers are treated fairly by the recruiting and sponsor companies with which they contract. Jobs off the island will seem far less appealing to workers who are treated properly and compensated fairly.
Make workforce housing a priority. The Town of Hilton Head Island could be doing much more to encourage the private sector to build more housing that hospitality workers can afford. That could mean making some of the town-owned land available for it, creating affordable-housing incentives or rezoning areas where some could be built. We’re lucky to have Habitat for Humanity, now building homes on land the town made available, and Mayor David Bennett who has an expertise in building housing projects. Certainly, we'll never alleviate the worker shortage by building more housing. But it is an important piece of the solution.
Now is the time for action. Mayor Bennett has indicated that the underlying issues of the worker shortage will be discussed in the coming year as part of the town’s visioning process.
It is a crisis. The old model is dead. Things must change. Hilton Head’s ultimate help-wanted sign is for stronger leadership.
Special reportPropping up Paradise: Hilton Head's workforce crisis