Small businesses struggle to find workers

Dec 6, 2018

Élan Flowers in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood is a sea of roses and ribbon. Christine Hall, who owns the shop with her husband Patrick, says a good bouquet takes precise work.

“When I first learned how to do it I was, like, making the tissue all wrinkly and it didn’t look really pretty because like fighting with it and everything.”

Like many small businesses, Hall needs employees who can do it all, including customer service. Hall would like to hire two more full-time florists, but she’s had to rely on a network of freelancers instead, who often need training in the shop’s style and whose schedules are inconsistent.

That’s forced her to wake up and smell the roses. To attract and retain employees, Élan Flowers recently added a 401(k) option for its staff of seven, who make $12 to $30 an hour. And she’s considering offering health insurance.

“We’d love to offer it to our employees but ... it’s very expensive so, I mean I think that that’s probably a challenge across the board. I don’t think that’s unique to our business.”

Small businesses are looking to take advantage of the good economy to grow, but they can’t do it without more employees. Right now there are more jobs open in the U.S. than there are job seekers. That’s hitting small businesses particularly hard, even in cities like New York.

“It’s a very competitive environment for talent, for top talent, for all talent,” said Karen Kerrigan, CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, adding that service industry jobs are feeling the pressure to offer benefits that traditionally come with sitting behind a desk.

Now that the economy is good, people don’t feel like they have to stay at jobs they don’t love. That has companies fighting for their attention.

“You have to be super super active in recruiting the best talent and really being, I hate to use the word aggressive, but you have to go out there and really make an effort,” said Jeff Cartwright, vice president of Morning Consult, a data research company in New York. The company wants to double its staff of 84 in the next year, so it hired recruiters to poach talent. And it takes more than cool startup clichés to do it these days.

“I think there’s this trope with startup companies, like you have to have a ping pong table and a beer keg, right? Like that’s enough to bring in employees,” Cartwright said.

The company is in a coworking space with yes, beer on tap. But Cartwright said when talking to job candidates he emphasizes not tech culture but small business culture — like the ability to work across roles and lead projects.

Still, the best way to find workers is, not surprisingly, to pay more. But that might be tough for businesses with thin profit margins.

“We probably will see a lot of low paying businesses, a lot of restaurants maybe some retail stores, they’re going to go out of business because they can’t get the workers they need,” said Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research. “And that’s the way the market economy works for better or for worse.”