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In tight labor market, employers going to great lengths to attract workers

Manager Jose Flores and owner Brek Peterson (left) at the Assembly Square location of Which Wich restaurant. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Brek Peterson knew what he was up against when he started looking for a manager for his Which Wich sandwich shop in Somerville last fall.

Competition for workers in this historically tight labor market is intense, so Peterson didn’t hesitate to act when Jose Flores — who was fielding multiple job offers — applied for the job. When Flores told Peterson he couldn’t work weekends because his children are with him then, Peterson proposed a Monday through Thursday schedule and took on the Sunday shift himself.

“You have to do whatever it takes,” he said.

With workers in high demand, doing whatever it takes often means making jobs better.


In low-wage sectors where wages and job quality have lagged for years, pay is rising, benefits are improving, part-time hours are turning into full-time work, and schedules are becoming more flexible and stable. One restaurant chain started closing before the MBTA stopped running to accommodate workers who rely on public transportation to get home. A long-term care facility reallocated some of the physically demanding duties required of nursing assistants to allow older employees to continue working.

Companies in higher-paying industries are also starting to loosen qualifications for jobs that previously required a four-year degree — or several years of experience — making them more accessible to people who otherwise might be stuck in entry-level positions.

Jerry Rubin, chief executive of the workforce development agency Jewish Vocational Service, sees this as a pivotal moment. Companies are appealing to JVS to recruit and train job candidates, and the agency is, for the first time, negotiating to make “‘bad’ jobs better jobs,” as Rubin put it in a recent paper he coauthored that was published by the Boston Foundation.

“This is our moment. We’re racing to catch up,” he said. “Our hope is that some of those practices will become habits.”


There should be ample opportunity. At a time when job openings nationwide have outnumbered job seekers for a full year, several employers are embarking on major hiring sprees in the Boston area. The Encore Boston Harbor wants to bring on 5,500 workers for the casino’s scheduled opening in June. The minimum wage is $19 for security guards and $20 for dishwashers, plus benefits that include paid parental leave and tuition reimbursement. A Four Seasons hotel opening in May in the One Dalton tower is offering signing bonuses to the 500 housekeepers, servers, and other staff it’s hiring. JPMorgan Chase is adding more than 350 workers around Boston over the next few years, with entry-level wages of $18 an hour.

Similar improvements are happening around the country. Bank of America last week announced a $20 minimum wage, up from $15, instituted two years ago. Clothing retailer H&M recently started offering paid parental leave, even for part-time employees.

Much of the job growth in Boston during the long recovery from the Great Recession has been in low-paying occupations, according to the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. But those wages have been on the rise. In March, bartender pay in Boston was up more than 14 percent compared with the year before, according to the labor market research firm Glassdoor. Pharmacy techs were making 8 percent more, bank tellers received an average 7 percent raise, and cashiers saw a 6 percent bump. Overall in Boston, wages were up 2 percent last month compared with March 2018.


Employers are also going to great lengths to accommodate individual needs. To get to the Which Wich in Westwood, many employees have to take the commuter rail, which is much more expensive than MBTA trains. So Peterson, the restaurant’s franchisee, set starting pay at $13 an hour, 75 cents more than he pays at the Assembly Row location in Somerville. Commuter rail also has limited service on weekends, which means his assistant manager, who lives in Stoughton and doesn’t have a car, can only work during the week.

Peterson found 20 workers for a new Which Wich on Newbury Street, but the store’s opening has been delayed. To keep them on staff, Peterson has been paying the workers to train in his other stores — for weeks. “Otherwise, I’ll lose them,” he said.

In the past, graduates of JVS’s nursing assistant program were often offered part-time jobs, but as part of a pilot program with several area hospitals, graduates now are guaranteed full-time work and stable schedules. A JVS pilot program for pharmacy techs also comes with the promise of full-time work, with wages as high as $22 an hour.

In addition to making lower-paying jobs more attractive, some organizations are making higher-paying positions more attainable by reducing educational requirements. Over the past decade, many positions that didn’t previously require a bachelor’s degree started making four-year degrees a prerequisite — a phenomenon known as “upcredentialing.” Employers used it to narrow the pipeline of applicants when unemployment was high. But now that workers are in short supply, some employers are trying to widen the top of the funnel again.


Online retailer Wayfair, which last year hired more than 2,000 full-time workers in Boston, no longer requires software developers to have a bachelor’s degree and has started partnering with boot camps and training programs to recruit entry-level hires in that field.

Indeed, a new City of Boston report found that people without four-year degrees have many of the skills needed for several jobs that now often require a bachelor’s degree. The research, conducted by Northeastern University, analyzed the skills listed in job seekers’ online resumes and employers’ job postings around Greater Boston. It found, for instance, that entry-level IT help desk positions that required a four-year degree had few differences in skill requirements compared with those that didn’t demand a bachelor’s degree.

This push to get more job candidates in the pipeline, and into better jobs, could help diversify the workforce, said Trinh Nguyen, director of workforce development for the city. The vast majority of workers with bachelor’s degrees in Boston are white, she said, so opening up more jobs to workers who didn’t graduate from college would propel more people of color into the middle class. The city is also trying to open up more of its jobs to people with fewer credentials, Nguyen noted.

Community colleges and nonprofit programs have been producing graduates with solid skills for years, but employers haven’t gotten on board because of the bounty of bachelor-degree-holders in Boston, she said. But as open positions remain unfilled, the door is starting to open wider.


“This is really a call to action to employers to change the way they think about hiring,” Nguyen said. “The time is right.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.