Island Summer Labor Market Avoids Shortages of Past Seasons

By JOSHUA SABATINI

The word spread from Martha's Vineyard to prospective summer workers all over the world: The Island has a high cost of living and there were fewer jobs available at the start of the season.

But local businesses say that more young people than ever sought jobs this year, and suggested that most seem willing to swallow the expenses necessary to experience an Island summer. They report fielding inquiries from lots of American and foreign college students, as well as from an increasing number of high schoolers.

Just two years ago, the Island experienced a shortage of workers and, some employers admitted, a lack of quality service. At the time they attributed the shortage - at least in part - to exorbitant rent and high gas and grocery costs.

But now a new tide of summer workers has appeared as owners and workers alike adapt to the Vineyard's unusual challenges.

The Black Dog hires about 150 employees for the summer and receives hundreds of applications from all over the country, said Abbie Taylor, one of the company's directors of human resources. The biggest challenge for most would-be cooks, clerks and waiters is finding housing, she said.

To solve the dilemma that has endured for more than 20 years, larger businesses like the Black Dog are opting to provide housing for their workers. While Miss Taylor said she gives first preference to applicants who already have places to stay, the business also sublets housing to 55 employees.

Rent money averaging $75 per week is taken directly out of employees' paychecks, Miss Taylor said. The company ends up subsidizing a portion of the rent in many cases, she added.

At Mad Martha's, most employees live in a co-op situation in which each pays a share of the rent, said Rob Kosienski, manager of the Vineyard Haven store. On average, he said, his workers pay between $4,000 and $5,000 over the course of the summer for a share of a house.

The three Mad Martha's stores employ 70 people during the summer, he said, noting that his applicants, too, are mostly from off-Island.

"If the applicants have housing, it is a big plus," Mr. Kosienski said. But "the workers who come to the Island to work are more affluent than ever before.

"These are the kids who can afford to come out here," he said. "There are no longer the middle-class kids coming here to work and get housing."

While in the past, he said, there was a shortage of workers and a decrease in quality of service, those days are gone.

The rental market and summer labor market exist "hand-in-hand," Mr. Kosienski added. He suggested that recent market trends have opened the door for more college-age men and women who may not be landlords' preferred tenants.

"A couple of years ago, we had a short demand. The economy was high. Renters were getting what they wanted," said Mr. Kosienski. "Now people have to rent to college students."

His view is supported by rental agents across the Island who report there are more available rentals on the Island, but less of a demand for them.

One business manager in Edgartown said she believes rental prices are still too high, but has not experienced any shortage in labor as a result. She said the biggest challenge for owners is to find employees who can work after Labor Day, when many college students return to school.

Adding to the labor supply are foreign workers. Mr. Kosienski saw applications from as far away as Lithuania, and says those from international students, especially - some seeking to improve their English-language skills - are on the rise. The Black Dog also reports hiring foreign workers, including a number of Jamaicans who have returned annually for several years.

Susan Gamble of Among the Flowers Café in Edgartown has seen one summer labor season pass into the next for the more than 20 years she has owned her café. "There are plenty of people looking for jobs" this year, she said. "Throughout all of the nineties there were many fewer people."

She posted job openings on the Internet this year and believes doing so led to an increased number of applications from web-savvy collegians who know they have to plan in advance to get housing and jobs on-Island.

One Internet resource that attracted attention is the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce web site called One Stop Job Shop. The free service, updated every Monday from April through early July, provides information about jobs and housing opportunities.

More than 150 job openings and 60 places to live are listed on the site this week. The average rental price listed is $2,000 a month; the highest is $25,000 a month.

"We are still getting new job opportunities and more housing," said chamber of commerce director Valerie Richards. "The site is very, very popular.

"The summer labor market seems very strong," she added.

Don MacDonald, owner of the Scrimshander, a longtime business on Edgartown's Main street, agrees, saying he has had to turn away people looking for work - something he hasn't done much in previous years. He speculated that other businesses may take on more employees only if there is a need.

Another business owner in Edgartown who reports a slowdown in business compared to last year has nevertheless hired the usual number of staff, expecting things to pick up. But he also says a lot of college kids are not looking to work much and want instead to just enjoy the summer. "They want to work a lot in June to make money, and then mostly go to the beach in July and August," he said.

Still, said Karla Ross, retail manager at Island Breeze, "The supply [of employees] are definitely there."

Miss Ross added that she has seen more younger kids looking for work than in years past. One advantage for them, she said, is that they live with their parents and do not have to worry about the housing challenge.

For those not similarly blessed, it can get cramped.

Travis Norton, 19, a student at Holy Cross who works at Among The Flowers, said he knows of 15 students who are living together. He said he got lucky because he is living rent-free with a family, but the cost of living on the Island will definitely eat into his paycheck.

"But it's worth it," he said. "I'm not here for the money. I'm here to enjoy the Island."

Matt Raucci of Connecticut, a Tufts junior hired by Mr. MacDonald, is also staying rent-free, at the home of a friend's parents. But he is looking to move out and get his own place with another friend.

This is Mr. Raucci's first trip to the Vineyard; he was enticed by the prospect of "living 30 seconds from the beach" and the young crowds that flood the Island. He heard about the cost of living, too.

"I'm not here to make money," said Mr. Raucci. Referring to a popular pair of teen movies from recent summers, he said that he's looking for "the American Pie experience."