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How You Can Help Small Town America Survive

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

In the corner of nearly every small town shop window there seems to be a “help wanted” sign. Many businesses have even resorted to implementing signing bonuses in hopes of gathering interest in future employees. Unfortunately, those bonuses are not paralleled to that of today’s NFL stars and those bonuses don’t seem to be enough of an incentive to get new employees to step behind the counter. Those “no-elbow-room” types of restaurants that many are accustomed to seeing in the summers in a tourist town are still thriving financially from what it may appear to the average patron, but mentally and physically things are not sustainable. Proud family owned restaurants that are community staples are having to adjust hours and close early due to a lack of help. One can see the burnout they are experiencing in their eyes and in their body language as the owners (yes, owners) are busing tables and washing dishes. It won’t be easy, but I know small town America will survive.

Small town America is not the only area experiencing work shortages. The big Midwest cities of Minneapolis/St.Paul and Chicago have their fair share of troubles of not filling positions as well. One could even broaden the scope and say it’s a nationwide problem. If you tune into any news channel (CNN, FOX, NBC, etc.) they will tell you that there is a worker shortage. Now, their angles might be different in how they perceive the shortage and where they think this may stem from, but the issue remains the same; workers are needed.

“In our office we have two giant white boards, and they're chock full of over 40 different companies that are looking for people right now. We've got well over 100 openings,” said Karl C. Amlie who owns an Express Employment Professionals franchise in Forest Lake.

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As people start making their way out of the woodwork due to an increase in confidence as the pandemic begins to decline (whatever your view on that may be, but we’re not out of this yet) there is a large influx of traffic in communities once again. While this is wonderful to see and many small communities welcome the uptick in business as folks spend their dollars on t-shirts with the town name on the front, nights eating out with their families at a fish fry tucked away in the woods, time spent at a resort or at a local festival; there is an increased demand in service while there is a lack in supply of workers.

Business owners are doing as much as they can to promote the fact that they are searching for employees. Many have taken to going beyond the shop window to post on social media as well as job sites like Indeed. This isn’t a subtle hand raise—this is a cry for help. They are screaming for workers as they are captains of a ship they are trying to keep afloat. They haven’t only been doing this for weeks on end. Some have been wailing for months and they are barely getting by. Behind the baggy eyes and in between sips of lukewarm coffee they are still fighting the good fight and somehow are able to put a smile on their face.

This isn’t a problem that gets fixed overnight like a solid library study session with a friend and a Red Bull the night before your final exam. This is going to take some time, but we have to be intentional with that time. If we allow more and more time to pass before giving these owners and workers (yes, the one’s pulling double/triple duty) we are going to see more and more burnout. To keep this from happening, we are going to have to use patience. It’s always easier said than done. Nobody likes waiting forever to sit down. It’s difficult, especially if you have children or a large group, but that patience goes such a long way. This is when we have to get creative with our time. Bring a deck of cards with you, a Mad Libs book, download a fun trivia party game on your phone, etc. Whatever you have to do to keep your mind off of the fact that you’re waiting and also to keep yourself from hounding the wait staff that you should be seated by now.

The next thing we have to choose to be intentional about is our word choice especially when it comes to moments that could lead to a potential conflict. When in doubt, choose kindness over being right. Yes, we are told that “the customer is always right” but is it really worth the damage you may be doing to that employee? If we allow our emotions to take over in the heat of the moment—we often make a decision that we will regret later. When we begin to look at issues such as not being seated immediately, a food/drink order being messed up or lack of service as a means of attacking another individual; we put ourselves in a difficult position. We lose control and may end up looking foolish in the end. But if we see these issues as they arise and work together towards a solution then we have a better chance at resolving the issue.

Instead of choosing to use your words to attack, try using these phrases instead:

  • “Let's take a break, think it through, and then make the decision.”

  • “Let's work on this problem together!”

  • “Help me understand. / Please, explain what you mean.”

  • “I wasn’t aware of this—tell me more.”

  • “I recognize your efforts and hard work.”

While we do venture out to these establishments to be served, we must keep in mind that these are human beings and not robots. And thank God for that.

Finally, we must get back to work. If you’re one of those people that is sitting back and riding the wave of unemployment/collecting a paycheck while being a fully healthy and functioning adult then you are part of the problem. I know it’s not a World War or anything like that and there isn’t as much glory when you punch in for your shift as there would be if you were firing a machine gun, but it’s time. It’s time to shake hands with a business owner after turning in your application and taking pride in being a working adult. It’s time to look in the mirror at the end of the day and know that you’re providing for your family because you busted your backside for them. It doesn’t have to be glamorous and it doesn’t have to be long term, but it’s got to be something. You may not be in the job you want for the long run, but it’s a job and in doing so you are helping your community thrive in a time when it’s never been more important.

“What has my community ever done for me? What has my employer ever done for me? Why should I care?” It is something that many people might say as their excuse for not getting a job. While I may not know what it’s like to work for a large corporation, I do know what it’s like to work for a great small business owner. They’re the ones that celebrate you on your birthday. They’re the ones that throw Christmas parties. They’re the ones in the church pews when a family member passes away. They’re the ones buying lemonade from your child outside of your family garage sale. They’re the ones that give you a gift on your wedding day. They’re the ones that have seen you at your best and at your worst. “Why should you care?” and to that I say, “why not?”

In the initial stages of the pandemic, all one would hear about is how we need to come together. Companies and businesses pounded us with it in between shows we were binge watching on Hulu and other streaming services and we’ve been nothing but divisive ever since. This vs That. Us vs Them. Me vs You. We seemed to have forgotten about the human condition and what has made our small communities stand the test of time.

Small towns thrive when they are tight knit communities. We’ve all been to a small town before where they have absolutely nothing going for them. Everyone keeps to themselves, no Main Street exists, and you’re just waiting for a tumbleweed to roll on by. We’ve also all been to small towns that are absolutely booming. Why? It’s the people. The people can make all of the difference and the way they handle triumph and adversity. It’s in the way they respond when a high school sports team heads off to compete in a state tournament or when a local festival is held. It’s also in the way they handle a tragedy such as a beloved community member finding out they have cancer or when a fire consumes a building. Everywhere has their outliers and cases of small town drama, but at the end of the day all one can do in a small town is continue to trust the intentions of the person they call a neighbor and friend. We can’t turn our backs on each other. We will survive, but how about we bring over a cup of flour for our neighbors first.

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