Claudete Gunsalus said she almost reached a big milestone in owning and operating her Lakeway drop-in child care business, Kid-E-Shack. However, the Lake Travis resident closed the storefront Aug. 23, one day shy of the business’s fifth anniversary.
“I am sad for not being able to see the children and their families,” she said. “You know, the main reason [I closed the facility] was not being able to find qualified and committed staff. I really care about the kids, my name and business.”
Laura Mitchell, president of the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce, said Gunsalus is not alone, as numerous employers have searched to find solutions to attract employees to work in local businesses, shops and restaurants.
“I think [the shortage of employees] exists for a variety of reasons,” Mitchell said. “First, we need some kind of public transportation system in the Lake Travis area—we have none. Second, there isn’t a good amount of affordable housing in the area. Third, due to the affluent demographics, we struggle to shape a workforce that produces candidates for our employers.”
On Sept. 19, a Capital Metro vanpool composed of newly hired Target employees left the Capital Plaza Shopping Center Target parking lot in Central Austin, bound for the Target store at 3702 S. RR 620, Bee Cave—a first for the western Travis County retailer.
“In Bee Cave, people have million-dollar homes and are not working at Target,” said Sarah Smith, Capital Metro VRide account manager, who is credited with coordinating the area’s vanpool with Target’s human resources department. “So [Target’s employee] demographic is way different than the people who live [in Bee Cave]. Why would you live in Austin and work at the Target at Bee Cave when you could work at the Target in Austin?”
The Capital Metro rideshare program is administered through VRide, a third party, and allows workers to travel together in a vehicle owned by the local agency but operated by approved VRide commuter drivers, she said. The driver can leave the vehicle at a Park & Ride or other area, including his or her own residence, that is located within the Capital Metro service area to receive a subsidy from the agency, she said. The driver is permitted 200 personal miles monthly, she said. Capital Metro provides the insurance, maintenance and roadside assistance for the van as well as the subsidy, and the users split the costs of commuting—including gas, she said.
Smith said The Home Depot in Bee Cave is also having a difficult time recruiting employees.
“We are an option that [Target Bee Cave] can offer to their employees as to how to get from Austin to their location for free without having to take the bus,” Smith said of Target’s agreement to pay the vanpool’s entire Capital Metro bill for the first three months of the pilot program, excluding fuel costs.
“We are trying to work with businesses,” she said. “They are having issues recruiting people. That’s the main issue they are having in Bee Cave and Lakeway because there isn’t a public bus or transportation system. So, that’s where the rideshare comes in. We fill in those gaps with a bus. We are a form of public transportation but right now, where we’re at is finding employees who are willing to vanpool together and then forming them into a vanpool so that they can get from their home end to their work end.”
Costs for the program vary, depending on the number of riders and the type of vehicle selected, but typically, a seven-passenger Chevrolet Traverse van costs a total of $254 monthly after accounting for the agency’s subsidy, which amounts to about half of the total price of the rental and can be split by the commuters using the vehicle.
“Vanpools are another option for folks not serviced well by bus routes,” Capital Metro Program Manager Annie Arguello said.
About a year ago, the Lake Travis chamber conducted a survey among its local businesses and found that most owners were struggling with maintaining employees in the retail and hourly wage fields along with some medical and law offices, Mitchell said.
The cities of Lakeway and Bee Cave lie outside the Capital Metro service area, and neither of the cities’ councils has agreed to contract with the agency, an act that is required for bus service to be extended to the region.
“I think it’s fantastic the [vanpool] program has actually come to fruition, that it can actually happen out here and be a benefit to not only the employee but the employer as well,” Mitchell said. “I hope to see more of this happening with either Capital Metro or an organically created rideshare program.”
Four Points looks for help
“We are having a lot of trouble finding employees to come out here,” said Daniel Marker, co-owner of School in the Hills, a private preschool and elementary school program with locations in River Place and Steiner Ranch.
The West Austin Chamber of Commerce invited Capital Metro staffers to present information about its vanpool program to area businesses Sept. 16 at the newly opened Holiday Inn Express & Suites NW in the Four Points-area Trails at 620 shopping center.
Michael McCloskey, director of sales at the hotel, said he was asked by management to visit nearby apartments to recruit employees.
“Most housekeepers don’t pay $1,500 per month apartment rent,” he said. “This is not the market for our employees, so they come from other places.”
Arguello said the staff works with employers who are having trouble recruiting, an issue prevalent in the Four Points area.
“Right now, we’re working with just one employer [Target Bee Cave] to see if that will work,” Smith said. “It’s a different mindset that you need to be in, that you are sharing a ride with a group of people in a vehicle and having that understanding of how it is going to work—that you all meet in a certain place, you are traveling in a certain direction to get to work, having the same work hours. People are used to driving in their own vehicles to get to work.”
Still searching for part-timers
Even with its close proximity to downtown, businesses in the Westlake area are struggling to find part-time employees.
“We’ve been here for 34 years, and the last year has been the most difficult for the service industry,” said Sarah Trivitt, chairwoman of the Westlake Chamber of Commerce board and an operator of Merry Maids on Bee Caves Road. “Finding good help is a constant conversation within the [Westlake] chamber. I think a lot of small-business owners are having this problem, so managers are definitely wearing more hats now than they’re used to. ”
Although the use of traditional means of finding employees—such as print and radio advertising—did not work for Merry Maids, she said she found success posting positions and promoting them on social media. After two or three months on social media, Trivitt said the franchise was fully staffed.
“I’ve been telling all of our colleagues to look into social media,” she said. “Know what the people you want to employ are looking at, and target them that way.”
Kurt Pederson, owner of two Pinkberry frozen yogurt franchisees in Westlake, said the booming economy in the metro is also contributing to the lack of people looking for work elsewhere.
“To put it simply, there are only so many people in the labor force, the economy in Austin is booming and people have their pick of where they want to work,” he said.
“We’re always looking for good employees but it’s become a lot more difficult the last four to six months, and if you look at some of the wages being advertised, they’re starting to shoot up.”
Because of a lack of public transportation options in the area, it is not feasible for employees to work in Westlake if they do not own their own vehicle, Trivitt said.
“Even to get some people in for interviews, they need a way to get here,” she said.