¡Bienvenido a Branson! To close a workforce gap, Branson employers turn to Puerto Rico

As a famous destination for country music and family entertainment, Branson thrives on tourism and hospitality.

It’s a huge industry — one that long ago outgrew the capacity of the local workforce. Employers in the area have compensated by looking outside the country for seasonal workers via the federal H-2B visa program.

This approach was working well until 2017, when the government abruptly and drastically reduced the number of guest worker visas allowed. This left local businesses facing hundreds of unfilled jobs.

Determined to find a solution to this shortfall, officials from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and the Taney County Partnership put their heads together.

One of their ideas was, Why don’t we recruit from Puerto Rico?

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans don’t need visas to come work in Missouri — and job opportunities in Puerto Rico can be scarce. Over the past few years, Missouri’s jobless rate has remained steady at around 3 to 4 percent while Puerto Rico’s has been about 10 percent.

Seeing the potential for a mutually beneficial program, the workforce leaders planned a trip to find out more.

“We traveled to Puerto Rico and met with some folks there,” said Heather Hardinger, the director of Workforce Strategy and Programs for the Taney County Partnership. “They shared what the process was, and we took that information and that knowledge back to Branson.”

On return trips to Puerto Rico, Branson businesses connected with workers who were eager to fill $10-$11 an hour jobs. The hiring businesses also pay for the workers’ flights and relocation costs.

“We had a very successful first few trips,” said Hardinger.

During their first round of recruitment, Branson leaders flew in about 60 workers to Branson.

“We immediately started trying to set some benchmarks for quality in terms of housing, transportation — making sure that employers are providing a quality employee experience,” Hardinger said.

Today, to be involved in the program, employers need to identify available housing and establish options for transportation.

“[The employees] pay rent, but it’s housing that we have available, with transportation to and from work,” said Jeff Seifried, president and CEO of the Branson Chamber.

It’s not just seasonal workers that employers in the Ozarks need — the health care sector has a shortage of local employees as well.

CoxHealth, a locally owned, not-for-profit health system, got involved in the recruiting efforts for long-term positions.

“We discovered a surplus of nurses in Puerto Rico that struggled to find employment in their industry. Like most healthcare systems, we need more nurses than we can recruit, so it was a good fit for us,” said Celeste Cramer, CoxHealth’s system director of recruitment and retention. “It’s going very well so far and we plan to expand to other positions.”

CoxHealth was recently able to hire more than 20 nurses from Puerto Rico, Cramer said.

“We provide relocation assistance that includes a period of housing support. The out-of-pocket costs for the system don’t differ from recruiting anywhere out of state,” she said.

A CoxHealth nurse recruiter speaks to a group of nursing students at National University College in Bayamon, Puerto Rico in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Heather Hardinger.

Since April 2017, when the program first started, local businesses have recruited more than 400 Puerto Ricans to Branson.

Though program coordinators have been excited to see the positive results so far, they’ve also had to counter misconceptions that the program leaves eligible local job seekers unemployed and drives down wages.

“There were some folks that were simply misinformed about what we’re doing,” Hardinger said. “And so, we’re very quick to correct them and provide the right information about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Cramer agreed.

“[The program’s leaders] were there to say, ‘Hey, we surveyed. These are the number of job openings we have versus the people that are able to work. And this is why it’s actually good for our community,’” Cramer said.

Seifried said those misunderstandings are a challenge they continue to address — but that the incoming workers have largely been well-received.

“When the people come and they see way more support and acceptance than they do rejection, I think overall it’s been positive,” he said.

Table Rock Lake, Branson, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

To help make the recruitment effort a welcoming, community-wide initiative, the Branson Chamber and the Taney County Partnership have hosted a variety of workshops and cultural information seminars.

Cramer said when a population like Branson’s — which is more than 80 percent Caucasian — has employers bringing in large numbers of workers from other cultures, education becomes key to cultivating a good community experience for everyone involved.

“It’s exciting to see cultural competence expand in our community,” said Cramer. “This initiative goes beyond filling jobs. It also helps with diversity in thinking and experience.”

Seifried said the most rewarding part of recruitment is matching individuals with opportunities. He recalled speaking with one particular worker during their first trip to Puerto Rico.

“She had 20 years of experience at a bakery. She was working, but the most she could get was about 20 hours a week on a good week — 20 hours a week making $4 an hour. When she was offered a full-time job at $11 an hour, she just broke down and started crying,” Seifried said. “We’re connecting people who have a true need for the positions that we have to offer.”

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