Behind Hilton Head’s gates, guards wrangle gators, stop break-ins — and are in short supply

Surveillance technology at Palmetto Dunes

Chief of Security Jim Griner describes some of the advanced technology the department uses to keep track of what is going on in the development.
Up Next
Chief of Security Jim Griner describes some of the advanced technology the department uses to keep track of what is going on in the development.

It’s 5 a.m. in Port Wentworth, Ga., and Theoron Weeks is already up and getting ready for work.

He showers and shaves.

He doesn’t eat breakfast — he never does — and by 5:45 a.m., he’s out the door and driving up U.S. 21 toward Hilton Head Island, where his job as a patrol officer in a gated community awaits nearly an hour away.

His full title is Sgt. Theoron Weeks, and he’s worked at Hilton Head Plantation for a year and a half.

Once Weeks arrives, things get busy fast.

Like the shortages found in the island’s accommodations and food and beverage industry, security staff are also feeling the crunch.

“They are the face of each and every plantation on the island,” said Hilton Head Plantation general manager Peter Kristian.

That face is getting harder to find.

Nearly 70 percent of Hilton Head land sits behind gates in planned unit developments, most of which rely on private security staff to protect residents and their property.

“I think pretty much everyone is affected by staffing issues,” Weeks told The Island Packet. “It’s hard to get qualified applicants to come here and work. You’ve got to have a clear background.”

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

The shortage has a direct impact on the way Weeks does his job.

If someone doesn’t show up for a shift or if a position is unfilled, another guard must step in to work a double.

At Hilton Head Plantation, each of the three shifts is staffed by six officers. Like many other island gated communities, security staff patrols the grounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As the self-proclaimed “overtime king,” Weeks said he typically works six days a week — sometimes from 7 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. if he’s covering an open shift.

These armed officers are given an immense amount of responsibility.

They staff the gates which allow residents and guests to come and go.

They respond to medical calls and investigate home alarm systems when the alarms go off.

They’ve even been known to wrangle alligators that stray into homes.

A different face of the labor shortage

Hilton Head Plantation advertised for new security officers Oct. 23.

And again on Dec. 5.

And yet again on Jan. 7.

Kristian said security personnel are the largest part of his staff. When fully staffed, security makes up 30 of the community’s 52 employees who serve a population of about 10,000 residents on 4,141 sites.

It’s getting harder to hire them.

“It’s always in a state of flux,” Kristian said. “It’s the same reasons for the shortages in all other areas: commuting, you don’t get hours off, and you’re working weekends.”

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

Security officers work holidays as well and stay behind to assist residents as they evacuate before hurricanes, Kristian said.

The town of Hilton Head Island hired a housing consultant last year to make recommendations on workforce issues.

One of the things Lisa Sturtevant and Associates found was that 16.8 percent of workers on Hilton Head commute 50 miles or more each way to get to work — about 4,400 workers.

Weeks said he had never set foot on the island before starting work here.

One of the more frustrating parts of the shortage is when car troubles prevent someone from making it to a shift.

“On my shift, no one lives on the island,” Weeks said of his co-workers, many of whom live at least 40 minutes away.

There are other, more serious concerns.

Lt. Williette Lee, who works second shift at the gated community, said the hardest part of her job is responding to medical calls.

Several years ago, she found a woman unconscious in her home.

“That’s a call you never want to receive,” said Lee, who has worked as a guard for seven years. “You get the call, and you get there and you just hope their heart is still beating.”

Lee administered CPR, and saved the woman’s life.

“She’s still living today over in Indigo Run,” Lee said.

The two keep in touch.

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

A problem elsewhere on the island

Other gated communities are facing a similar shortage.

At Sea Pines, where there are around 5,800 sites including homes, villas and hotel rooms, security director Toby McSwain said he’s had consistent openings in his 42-person security staff for five years.

“I think there’s probably been two months in my time here when we’ve been fully staffed,” McSwain said. “It’s hard for people to live on Hilton Head on a private security salary.”

He said there is one security officer on the Sea Pines staff that commutes 77 miles each way from Walterboro to get to work at the south-end community.

At Shipyard Plantation, which employes 19 security staff for 2,100 sites, the hiring process is what concerns officials.

“We are currently staffed, but we have noticed that the applicant pool is smaller than in the past and the on-boarding process is longer,” Sally Warren, the general manager of the Shipyard Property Owners Association, told the Island Packet.

At Palmetto Dunes, security chief Jim Griner said that one of the hardest parts of recruiting for security positions is acknowledging that so many applicants must commute to the community of 2,172 residential sites.

“I don’t think anything is different than it’s been,” he said. “The challenge has always been there with recruiting employees.”

He said Palmetto Dunes security is pretty well staffed with 36 officers. That’s in part because of the healthy referral bonuses for current employees (up to $1,500 if the referred applicant stays for two years).

Other gated communities are reaping the benefits of employee loyalty programs.

Indigo Run general manager Chip Munday said “We value our employees and pay a fair wage and provide excellent benefits.”

Indigo Run, which employs 13 security staff for around 1,000 home sites, is planning to add a new officer in 2019, and Munday said “(we) do not expect any difficulties in filling that position once it becomes available.”

Officials from Wexford and Port Royal Plantation did not return calls and emails for comment on security staffing.

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

Lee said the toughest part of training new hires is getting them to understand “it’s not just security. It’s law enforcement — period.

“It’s more than just standing at the gates and waving people in,” she said. “We do a lot more than people think.”

Balancing other jobs

Security officers at Hilton Head Plantation are paid hourly and receive benefits such as overtime pay, paid vacation time, a 401(k) retirement plan and sick leave, Kristian said.

Security guards in the community reported being paid an hourly rate that ranges from $13 to $20. Indeed.com lists the average hourly rate for a security guard as $12.80 on Hilton Head.

But even with overtime, many of them work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

“About 50 percent of us have another job,” Weeks said. “If (they’re) supporting multiple people at home, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Weeks also drives the airport shuttle between the Savannah/ Hilton Head International Airport and the Holiday Inn in Pooler.

Cpl. Cody Forbes, who works security on the third shift at Hilton Head Plantation, also works as a food runner at Skillets three days a week.

Lee works at T.J. Maxx and and has also worked overnight shifts as a certified nursing assistant at Hilton Head Hospital.

Moving up, moving on

Hilton Head Plantation is still hiring for security guard positions.

And, with end of the year turnover, it will likely be hiring again, Kristian said.

He said Forbes, the third-shift guard who also worked at Skillets, has moved onto a new position at Palmetto Electric.

He doesn’t blame Forbes — the utility company pays better.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we’re a victim of our own success,” Kristian said.

“A lot of them are dedicated to their craft and want to move up.”