Business leaders get creative to find workers
Labor shortage remains an issue for area employers

By Alex Nemec

Dec. 27, 2018

 Sarah Struhar serves customers at Bella Gusto in downtown Oconomowoc on Wednesday night.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

WAUKESHA — A tight labor market in Waukesha County is forcing area business owners to get creative to land the talent they need.

“Everything from looking at untraditional sources of talent to enhancing their facilities to really reviewing their corporate culture and making sure that reflects what they want to project to prospective employees,” said Suzanne Kelley, president and CEO of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

The unemployment rate in Waukesha County remains very low at 2.5 percent in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kelley said the workforce shortage is the number one problem facing the region right now.

“You’re seeing ‘help wanted’ signs all over Waukesha County and I think that’s an indication that we continue to have a very tight labor market,” Kelley said.

To address the problem, Kelley said, businesses need to have a multifaceted, three-pronged approach.

“They need to attract, develop and retain,” she said. “The Waukesha County Business Alliance is working with our members on all three of those tenets.”

Dan Schwefel, owner of Schwefel’s Restaurant in Oconomowoc, said there is a lack of workers in every industry right now, which creates problems and issues.

“When you’re in the service industry, our customers are looking for someone to take care of them,” Schwefel said. “They want things in a timely manner and with a friendly face on them.

“That does become more difficult with the employment situation the way that it is, there’s no doubt about it.”

Schwefel said he hasn’t seen the workforce shortage this bad since 2000, when he would hire anybody with a pulse if they walked in the door.

“Hiring new people now is definitely difficult,” Schwefel said. “Fact of the matter is I have a lot of good employees that have been here a long time. That helps me a lot because I have a good staff.”

 Bella Gusto employee Nate Rupnow tosses a pizza to prep for customers on
Wednesday night in Oconomowoc.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman


Kelley said there are several factors contributing to the workforce issue in the region.

“The number one thing is the economy is very strong right now and that has increased job opportunities as a whole,” she said.

Waukesha County has seen a population increase for the last few years and there are more people in the county than ever before, Kelley said.

“But a robust economy has enhanced job opportunities, so it has become an increasingly difficult to fill openings,” she said. The aging population is part of the problem as well, Kelley said.

“Employers are facing a growing number of retirements and that is going to continue for the foreseeable future, so that creates a lot of opportunities for people coming into the job market,” she said Tom Burns, co-owner of Bella Gusto in Oconomowoc, said the only issue he has had filling staff positions since his business opened in 2015 was when he expanded it.

“We hired that staff back in July and everybody has been intact since,” Burns said. “We pay a little higher than other restaurants do, plus we retain our staff.”

Despite Oconomowoc having a flurry of restaurants going into the city, Burns said Bella Gusto has had a record year and retained a lot of the staff they have brought on.

“We’ve had a good year for us because everyone we hired last year is still on board and kitchen staff is over a year and a half back there, so there’s a lot of stability,” he said.

Schwefel said he is currently has a full staff for the first time in a long time.

“That being said, if the right candidate walks in that is going to help me I’ll hire them because I’m always looking to make my staff better,” Schwefel said.