Midstate restaurants prepare for busy Valentine’s Day weekend 

Area restaurants are geared up for a busy Valentine’s Day weekend as industry-wide workforce shortages continue. 

Valentine’s Day, one of the biggest days of the year for restaurants, is set to be a particularly busy one this weekend with many midstate businesses reporting full houses on both Saturday and Monday. 

“It should be a good weekend all the way around. There is a pent-up demand to get out,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA). “It’s one of the biggest nights of the year and this year they get a bonus because they get it on Monday night.” 

This time last year Pennsylvania restaurants had indoor capacity limits placed on them by the Wolf Administration up until May. However, while restaurants can now operate at full capacity, many lack a full staff thanks to workforce shortages and staff out of work with COVID-19. 

The Left Bank Restaurant and Bar in York currently has a staff that is 50 to 60% of what it was prior to the pandemic. That cut in staff means that keeping staff healthy is more important than ever. 

“Currently our staff is wearing masks, but we don’t require guests wearing masks,” said Sean Arnold, chef and owner of Left Bank. “If we lose one or two staff, we lose a quarter of our front or back house. We are trying to make sure that our staff stays healthy so we can stay open.” 

On the customer side, there seems to be very little reluctance about going out for the weekend following the rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in December and January, said Longstreet, adding that while there may be slight edginess among customers, it hasn’t stopped the reservations from flowing in. 

Friday, Saturday and Monday are all nearly sold out at 1700 Degrees Steakhouse in Harrisburg. The restaurant, part of Hilton Harrisburg, expects the weekend to kick off a busy 2022 for the hotel, which already had advanced bookings from March through June. 

The next step for the hotel will be to rehire its banquet staff, which took a larger hit during the pandemic. 

“We see our numbers going back to a pre-pandemic volume by the fall,” said Joe Massaro, general manager at the Hilton Harrisburg. “We are feverishly looking to build back the rest of our team. We have to hire a significant amount of people for that end of the business to grow.” 

While the labor market is still thin among restaurants and hotels, it has definitely improved from where it was in 2021, said Sam Wilsker, a partner at Holiday Inn Lancaster and its adjoining restaurant, The Imperial. 

Like most restaurants, The Imperial had a slower January and is looking to pick up pace moving into February and March. 

“The Imperial is definitely in a stronger position for Valentine’s Day this year as opposed to last year,” said Wilsker. “We are happy to welcome indoor diners this year. Last year we were only able to offer To Go meals at this time.” 

The three restaurants said that they expect that the strong weekend will move into an equally strong restaurant season. 

“This Valentine’s Day weekend, based on reservations, looks to be a good start to our season,” said Arnold. “November and December were good months. People came out and celebrated. We hope that continues into 2022.” 

Wolf announces $2.5 million in Clean Energy Workforce Development Grants 

The Wolf administration announced a $2.5 million grant program Friday to boost the state’s clean energy sector as it tries to rebound from COVID-19 job losses. 

Five Clean Energy Workforce Development Grants of up to $500,000 will promote overall industry recovery from the pandemic. The state Department of Labor & Industry invites local workforce development boards to submit project proposals that would support at least 25 local or regional clean-energy businesses. 

Proposals are due March 14; the projects will kick off in July and continue through June 2025. 

A report last year from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that the state, which is a manufacturing hub for wind, hydro turbine and Energy Star products, shed 13,200 clean energy jobs between March and December 2020 because of the economic fallout from COVID-19. 

As the industry bounces back, skilled workers within the clean-energy sector are increasingly in demand. Even prior to the pandemic, at the end of 2019, eight in 10 clean-energy employers in Pennsylvania reported difficulty in locating qualified applicants, a release noted. Lack of experience and industry-specific knowledge were the main reasons. 

More skilled fabricators, assemblers and other manufacturing workers are needed, as well as construction and installation workers such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning mechanics, electricians and solar photovoltaic installers. 

The clean energy industry includes the technology sectors of energy efficiency, clean energy generation, alternative transportation, clean grid and storage and clean fuels. Among the subsectors are solar, wind, efficient lighting, hydropower, smart grid, electric vehicles, and biomass fuels. 

“This investment in the clean-energy sector’s workforce is an investment in the future of Pennsylvania,” Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in the release. “While its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is well under way, this is an industry that the Wolf administration wants to see thrive over the next decade. We need to be developing a talent pipeline now to make that vision a reality.” 

Capital Area Transit and rabbittransit reduce services amid worker shortage 

Regional transportation authority Capital Area Transit (CAT) and rabbittransit announced this week that it will reduce transportation services, citing recent staff shortages. 

The shortages include fixed-route service reductions in Adams and York counties beginning Feb. 6 and Cumberland and Dauphin counties beginning Feb. 7. 

“Like many businesses, we are impacted by employee shortages in the marketplace and COVID complications,” said Richard Farr, executive director of CAT and rabbittransit. “The combination of these two have trickled through our service areas impacting our workforce, our riders and much more. Reduced staffing creates the need to modify service.” 

CAT and rabbittransit are seeking candidates for full-time and part-time operators for its fixed-route and paratransit services.  A CDL is not necessary for all driving positions that are open. 

Harrisburg-based CAT and York-based rabbittransit merged in 2021 as CAT and rabbittransit, covering 11 counties. 

Manufacturer to move U.S. operations to York County, open new headquarters 

Thermal solutions company Mobile Climate Control (MCC) is consolidating its U.S. operations to a new headquarters in West Manchester Township, York County. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Friday that the manufacturer is set to create 117 new, full-time jobs over the next three years as it moves all of its operations to a new 220,000-square-foot facility at 400 South Salem Church Road. 

The new location will merge MCC’s existing U.S. operations consisting of: a production facility in Goshen, Indiana; an engineering and prototyping facility in Syracuse, New York; and an aftermarket warehouse, customer service, engineering and testing facility in York. 

The Wolf Administration competed with other states for the project, offering MCC a funding proposal for a $250,000 Pennsylvania First grant and a $150,000 workforce development grant through the Department of Community and Economic Development. 

“The Governor’s Action Team is pleased to invest in projects like this one that support growing companies and help boost Pennsylvania’s workforce,” said Brent Vernon, director of the Governor’s Action Team. 

The company plans to retain 48 existing jobs, create at least 117 new jobs and invest $3.18 million into the project over the next three years.

The facility is expected to be operational by April.  York-based Kinsley Construction is the developer of the project.

The effort to bring the company’s entire operations to the region was pushed to the finish line with help from the York County Economic Alliance, which assisted MCC with the site search, and the Manufacturers’ Association, which will support the company’s talent and training strategy with the association’s Center of Excellence for Apprenticeship and Training. 

“The opportunity to bring our entire U.S. operation under one roof brings us key business synergies and Pennsylvania’s reputation as a hard-working manufacturing culture will ensure that our bus HVAC-R business remains competitive for years to come,” said Stephen Preisler, vice president of U.S. operations for MCC. “We thank the Governor’s Action Team for the funding award, as it was pivotal in the decision to bring our business fully to Pennsylvania. The funding will be used, with the help of the York County Economic Alliance and the Manufacturers’ Association, to develop our new employee base. We are very excited to bring well over 100 new jobs into our local community.”  

Niche truckers certified for hazardous materials needed

As the truck driver shortage makes startling headlines, niche drivers requiring additional training and license endorsements could follow suit. 

A shortage of drivers who haul hazardous materials, tank trucks or are certified to work on docks and ports could further pinch supply chains and contribute to shortages at gas pumps, retail shops and grocery store shelves. 

“We saw this as an issue when we had the [Texas] pipeline problem a few months ago, and we needed drivers to haul gasoline,” said Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association in Camp Hill, Cumberland County. 

Drivers must go through training to obtain a CDL license that allows them to transport hazardous materials, operate tank trucks, combination loads and double and triple trailer loads, among others. 

In Pennsylvania, a commercial driver’s license is required for: 

  •  Those driving a combined weight of 26,001 pounds, with the towed vehicle weight over 10,000. 
  • Vehicles over 26,001 pounds. 
  • Vehicles carrying more than 16 people, including the driver. 
  • School buses. 
  • Hazardous materials as required by state or federal agencies. 

Brad Ball, president of Roadmaster Driver School in Bethlehem, said students may opt to take examinations for various CDL endorsements. Roadmaster operates truck driver schools in 18 locations across the country and is headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

“Hazmat- and TWIC-certified drivers will be more marketable, will have more opportunities and will have greater access to bonuses,” Ball said. 

TWIC, or Transportation Worker Identification Credential, is an additional skills endorsement required by the federal Maritime Transportation Security Act for truck drivers to work at ports and have access to shipping vessels. 

Ball said those with TWIC endorsements will become extremely valuable to trucking companies that do business in ports.  

“That is where the amount of supply chain backups [at the ports] are,” Ball said. “And at ports, those with TWIC can empty containers. It allows scheduling and all kinds of different work.” 

Trucking firms who don’t have TWIC-certified drivers will find it more difficult to route drivers and manage shipments, he said. 

Ball said investment in the “final mile” during 2020, when consumer habits switched from brick-and-mortar shops to ecommerce created a new mindset in trucking. The final mile, or last mile, has increased the number of last mile drivers who deliver goods into consumer’s hands, completing the final lap in the supply chain. 

Final-mile drivers may have smaller trucks and are able to access neighborhoods and limited access roads to complete their deliveries. 

“There has been a lot of change in the types of drivers, and it’s changed the number [or volume] of drivers necessary,” Ball said.   

The shortage of truck drivers is expected to worsen, but will it?

The American Trucking Association is warning that today’s 80,000 truck driver shortage could double to more than 160,000 in less than a decade. 

 It’s a perfect storm of drivers leaving the industry at a time when more are needed to keep up with increasing consumer freight demand, and there are no easy solutions, said David Taylor, president of Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association in Harrisburg.  

 “When you think about it everything people purchase…was delivered by a truck,” he said. 

From raw materials delivered to manufacturing facilities and then to customer destinations, trucking makes the world go round. 

“Trucking under girds our civilization and our quality of life,” Taylor said. “So, when we don’t have enough folks to drive the trucks to deliver the goods it complicates everything. This is why we see empty shelves and long delays.” 

A report by ATA estimated that by 2030, a 160,000 shortage of drivers could plague an already beleaguered sector.  

 Some reasons driving the shortage include:  

  • Drivers leaving before retirement. 
  • Drivers pushed out of the industry. 
  • Industry growth. 
  • A significant number of anticipated driver retirements. 

 The report used data based on current active drivers and the ideal number of drivers based on the demands of moving freight. 

“Last year a lot of drivers left the industry. We lost a tranche of drivers,” said Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association in Camp Hill, Cumberland County. She noted a backlog of new drivers unable to get into the system, CDL schools shut down or limiting enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic combined to make today’s driver shortage worse.  

“And DMVs [Department of Motor Vehicle] agencies across the country were not licensing truck drivers. Some cut down the amount they were licensing,” she said. 

The average age of a truck driver is 47, Oyler said. 

Cause for optimism 

But, while the landscape looks bleak, there may yet be a silver living. Some industry employers are responding by increasing salaries – in some cases as much as 21% – breaking long-haul routes into shorter trips and trying to make routes more appealing to drivers. 

 Interest in earning a commercial driver’s license or CDL is also on the rise, reported by two Lehigh Valley CDL schools. 

 Michael Glanz, director of operations for CC Training, the truck driving program provider at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville said overall interest in truck driving and obtaining a CDL license is steady and it’s up. 

 “We’re seeing an increase across the board. There is tremendous interest in the program and industry,” he said. “There are certainly jobs to be had.” 

 Efforts to change legislation through the DRIVE-Safe Act to allow CDL drivers under 21 to drive across state lines could help ease the shortage, she said. Federal law currently limits drivers under 21 to in-state only trips.  

“The [age limitation] is causing a lot of problems…and DRIVE-Safe is part of a federal pilot program that will allow a certain category to drive across state lines and help get young people into the industry,” she said. 

 Gene Barr, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg said workforce needs to better connect with truck driver candidates about industry jobs and careers. 

 “A lot of people in other industries are rethinking what they want to do, and a lot of trucking companies are acknowledging people don’t want to be away from home for days on end,” Barr said. 

 Government mandated shutdowns in Pennsylvania slammed the brakes on driver training in 2020. Driving school enrollments are healthy and continue to increase, said Brad Ball, president of Roadmaster Driver School of Bethlehem.  

 Roadmaster operates truck driver schools in 18 locations across the country and is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

 “While a lot of drivers were retiring early because of COVID, schools were unable to produce the number they had in the past, or they had to close down completely in places like Pennsylvania and Nevada,” Ball said. 

 While those shutdowns impacted truck driving schools and graduates, Roadmaster offers driver training enrollments weekly on Mondays. The program takes four weeks to complete, and candidates test for their CDL license during week five. 

 Targeted growth in the northeastern U.S. makes Bethlehem a prime CDL school location. About 700 drivers graduate from the Bethlehem location. 

 “Bethlehem is and always has been a high demand area for drivers. Even things coming from overseas, at the end of the day have to move by truck to get to homes, businesses and stores,” Ball said. 

Classes continue for four weeks, and those who complete the course may take their CDL test in the fifth week. Because Roadmaster pre-qualifies student candidates those who pass the CDL test immediately go to work for a trucking carrier. 

 “At some point you have to look at how you can get more people at the top of this funnel,” Ganz said. 

 New rules coming 

In February, new minimum requirements will set a baseline for those entering the trucking industry. The new rules are part of the rollout of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Entry Level Driving Training (ELDT) initiatives. 

 “All truck driver training providers are going to have to train with a minimum set of curricula that everyone has to do,” Ball explained. 

  The new training could level the field for interstate trucking and make driving more competitive for new candidates to enter the sector. 

 “We need to be more mindful of the role these workers play in our economy, and the service they render,” Taylor said. 

York County economic report reveals a mixed bag 

The latest data report from the York County Economic Alliance reveals a “mix of good news, silver linings and remaining obstacles,” said its CEO and president, Kevin Schreiber. 

While unemployment is falling in the county as the recovery continues, the labor pool is down and consumer confidence has weakened. 

In partnership with the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and its Center for Regional Analysis, the alliance releases data reports every other month. 

Schreiber said the decline in consumer confidence is the biggest change from the previous report. That’s “no surprise to anyone,” he said, given concerns about inflation, the worsening pandemic and other issues. 

York County entrepreneurs, however, are more optimistic. 

Surveys last month showed this disparity. “Business attitudes remain positive, as they anticipate solid demand, but they are also fatigued from being stretched too thin in navigating operational and economic challenges with no foreseeable end,” the report said. “In contrast, consumer sentiment remains dim as households report weakening financial conditions and waning optimism about the health of the local and national economies over the next 12 months.” 

York County’s economy shrank 3.8% in 2020. Total gross domestic product was $21.46 billion, down almost $856 million from 2019. “In real terms, the GDP loss walked back nearly five years of York County’s economic growth,” the report noted. 

There are no York County GDP numbers yet for 2021, but the economy there is rebounding along with the nation. 

Still, “COVID-driven headwinds fueled by rising cases and the emergence of variants are interjecting uncertainty around 2022 economic growth,” the report said. Labor shortages are expected to continue, and the ongoing pandemic will delay supply chain normalization. 

In York County, consumer spending  remained positive, according to the report, though it softened in the fall. 

The unemployment rate in the county fell to 4.1% in October, with 9,460 unemployed and 221,760 employed persons. That rate is approaching pre-pandemic levels, Schreiber said. The unintended consequence of that, he said, is difficulty in hiring. 

As of November, the York County labor pool was down nearly 7,400 people compared to 2019. “For some businesses, this meant difficulties expanding their workforce to meet demand that exceeded 2019 levels,” the report said. “For others, the labor shortage meant stunted progress towards pre-pandemic levels.” 

Manufacturing is among the few sectors exhibiting signs of recovery. Its workforce has exceeded 2019 levels for five straight months, but “many manufacturers still have significant unmet labor needs as they try to meet customer demand,” the report said. 

Based on 2020, GDP, retail trade had among the smallest losses. “Employment data shows its workforce expanded in the first half of this year in the face of strong consumer demand,” the report said. “However, some of the gains in workforce have been walked back in the fall months.” 

In contrast, leisure and hospitality were two of the hardest hit sectors since the pandemic started, losing nearly a quarter of their GDP and a fifth of their workforce in 2020, according to the report. A recovery started this summer, but employment was still 12.5% below 2019 levels. 

A result of this workforce contraction is rising wages, though the increase lags behind inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings in York County for the first 11 months of 2021 were nearly $26.30, around 3% higher than the year preceding the pandemic. The state average was up 8% for the same period ($28.25). 

 “We need a baby boom that will solve this (labor shortage) in 20 years,” Schreiber joked. 

On a more serious note, barriers to employment, such as lack of child care, must be reduced to get more people into the workforce, he said. Employers also need to be creative in attracting applicants in this hyper-competitive environment, whether its bonuses or some other incentives. 

The labor shortage was a challenge before the pandemic, Schreiber said, and now the problem is exponentially greater. People are leaving their jobs to stay home or retire. “It’s been a stressful two years,” he said.  

Many employees who are close to retirement age are deciding to quit, Schreiber said. “I can’t fault someone for choosing to exit the workforce,” he said. Others are re-evaluating their employment situation and reprioritizing “what’s important in life.”