Navigating the Worker Exchange Program Works for Internet Cafe

One Relief for Weak Labor Market

Photo by Maria Scandale.

Surf City — A seminar last year by the Long Beach Island Chamber of Commerce connected members like How You Brewin’ to an organization called InterExchange. This summer, two multilingual full-time staffers, one from Siberia and the other a university student in Lithuania, are here on the J-1 visa program sponsored by InterExchange.

“We invited businesses on LBI to attend the seminar; there were probably 25 to 30 businesses there,” said How You Brewin’ owner Dan Malay, treasurer of the LBI Chamber.

The speaker “walked us through the process of how to access the students, what you have to provide – things like housing.

“You don’t have to actually have the housing, but you have to make sure they have access to housing; they can’t come here without housing.”

More can be said about that hurdle in a moment, but for the internet cafe owners, this year’s solution was offered by a longtime employee, a former J-1 worker now a U.S. citizen, who had the space to put up two girls of the 18-member staff.

The employer got to know the would-be employees in advance.

InterExchange has an online portal that allows you to search by job type, by location, by English skill set,” explained Malay. It’s kind of a search engine. it produces a list of candidates.

Candidates can also indicate interest in a specific business, and the two young women had requested to be reviewed by How You Brewin’

“What’s neat, too, about InterExchange is that all the applicants are required to do a video of themselves talking,” demonstrating their English language proficiency and how they would present themselves to customers. “You kind of get a preview of how well they’re going to succeed here with the language,” Malay noted.

Facetime interviews were the next step. Umida Li and Vira Kondrtyuk now wear How You Brewin’ shirts.

“They’re great. They’re just so excited and appreciative of being here, that it really motivates them to do well,” Malay said. “We’re thrilled to have them, also speaking to the labor market, the dwindling labor market.”

Several Reasons For Job/Labor Disconnect

“This labor market thing has been brewing for two to three years now; everybody saw it coming,” said the LBI Chamber officer. He also noted the addition of another big employer, a hotel at the entrance to the Island, as another new choice for many employees to consider.

A drought of lower-cost housing, especially since Superstorm Sandy, has been pointed to by many as a reason why more “Help Wanted” signs are visible on the seascape.

“Housing is not easy in an affluent area,” Malay explained. “We hadn’t done J-1 in a while … for any other reason than the housing thing. It’s just tough.

The veteran employee’s ability to offer a place to live for the J-1 students “was huge,” the shop owner acknowledged. “There are some larger employers on the Island that have housing for their staff, but for smaller companies that don’t have the ability to do that, it becomes more challenging.

“A lot of businesses will share staff,” he noted. “You’ll get a business that’s open in the morning and another that’s open at night, and they’ll share J-1 students. These kids want to work; my two girls are already asking for overtime shifts.”

Malay surmised a few more reasons for what he had termed the dwindling labor market.

“I think it’s three things. Primarily, I think kids in that 18 to 23 range have more going on now than they did before: activities, sports, other obligations that inhibit their ability to work a full-time summer job.

“Number two is just the nature of the summer calendars now … with college kids going back sometimes as early as Aug. 8,” he pointed out incredulously.

“We typically won’t hire staff that aren’t available until Labor Day. Obviously, the height of the summer is still in full swing on Aug. 8, when kids are leaving. We learned the hard way early on.”

The chamber treasurer’s third pick he sees as almost a jobs surplus due to the economy. Incidentally, the internet cafe he owns with his wife Lori is expanding.

“The third thing is probably just the nature of the economy right now; the economy is so strong,” he said. “You have tremendous small business growth and you have a shrinking unemployment number. At least my sense is that the demand for staff far outweighs the supply of staff.

Upped Minimum Wage Adds to Next Year’s Issues

“Throw into the mix the tensions of the new minimum wage laws; that’s a whole other conversation,” Malay said.

The current minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.85 per hour. Under the new law, the base minimum wage for New Jersey workers will increase to $10 per hour on July 1. For seasonal workers and employees at small businesses with five or fewer workers, the base minimum wage will reach $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2026.

Said Malay, “The concern at this point becomes, what happens to the labor market once businesses have to absorb a $15 minimum wage?”

He went on to say that shore business owners are talking among themselves about how they will handle the wage increases.

“Businesses have one of three options. They can absorb the hike, probably not really a feasible option; they can raise their prices to cover it, which is probably what most people will do; or they’ll cut jobs.

“In some conversations I’ve had with other business owners, some businesses are positioned to be able to absorb cutting positions: ‘OK, we’ll just handle it this way instead.’ But, some businesses like mine, can you imagine if I have less staff in here?” he asked, looking at the shift of six busy with taking orders for food and beverages, making lattes and wiping tables clean.

Malay concluded for now, “Each business is a little different in how they can navigate the new law, and that is going to be the big question mark over the next two, three, five years.”

— Maria Scandale

Reposted from The Sandpaper