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Businesses Get Creative to Address Worker Shortage in Black Hills

SDPB / Arielle Zionts

Workers are in high demand across the country. That includes the Black Hills where businesses need to hire extra staff during the tourism season.  

Employers are raising wages, providing bonuses, and shortening hours to attract and retain workers. Meanwhile, workers have some newfound clout as they shop around for the best job.  

Benjamin Stout is a 29-year-old line cook at Tally’s in Rapid City. He’s earning his highest hourly wage since he began working in kitchens more than ten years ago.   

“It’s definitely different than it’s ever been from what I’ve known,” Stout said. “Right now, I think most of the places at least around here are offering bonuses or sign-on incentives for new hires because it’s just so hard for employers to find help.” 

South Dakota had a 2.9% unemployment rate in June, according to the Department of Labor and Regulation. There were about 41,000 job openings but only about 16,000 unemployed people to fill them.  

Most new hires were in the leisure and hospitality industry, which saw stronger-than-average growth from May to June.  More than half of that industry’s new jobs are in the Black Hills area.  

Hiring challenges, solutions

Wendy Bobbe is the owner of Candyland near Hill City and the new Rushmore Candy Company near Rapid City. She’s paying $2 more an hour to help attract workers.  

Bobbe said she has enough workers for this summer but things will get tough once high school and college students return to class in late August.  

“One day my manager here had seven interviews lined up and not one showed up,” she said. “That part has been unbelievably frustrating.  Like you get your hopes up, like ‘oh my gosh seven people applied, we’re going to get this done’ and then we just don’t get anybody to show up for the interviews.” 

Wineries, breweries and other businesses that sell alcohol can’t rely on as many young workers since you need to be at least 18 to sell or serve alcohol in South Dakota.  

Prairie Berry Winery and Miner Brewing Company near Hill City have found it “extremely difficult” to find seasonal workers, according to Angela Avila, marketing and sales director.  

She said higher pay, monthly bonuses, shorter business days and a reservation system have helped.  

“We can guarantee to our guests that the experience they sign up to will be staffed,” Avila said with a laugh. “But beyond that the experience is one-on-one, it’s more curated to the guests’ liking.” 

The company also built a new on-site, affordable campground where travelling employees can park their RVs.  

Pay is key

Some workers have left their jobs for higher pay. Stout, the line cook, considered that option but decided to stay at Tally’s after a raise and the announcement of $500 weekly bonuses.  

Even with that extra money, Stout still can’t afford healthcare. He’s earning nearly the same amount after taxes as he got on unemployment last year. His off-season pay has not been as much.  

“For owners to be getting angry about that I just feel like that’s a very interesting way for an owner to admit that they pay poverty wages if people are making more money from unemployment then they are working for certain restaurant owners,” Stout said.  

Higher wages are a successful recruiting tool for many business owners.  

Krystal Hegerfeld raised wages by up to 10% at the Custer Wolf restaurant and Walk in the Woods store in Custer.  

“My advice is to be a really good leader, get right in the trenches with them, provide a really good working environment, pay them very, very well,” she said.  

But even local tourist attractions that pay well and are fully staffed may still struggle this summer for reasons outside of their control.  

Bobbe, who owns the two local candy stores, said it usually takes one week to order and receive supplies. It now takes up to seven weeks. Bobbe says the suppliers have the goods but not enough workers to ship them out.