Surprise. The so-called labor shortage outside the District is real and it's making believers of a good many people in Alexandria.
The management of the new luxury Radisson Mark Plaza hotel in Alexandria apparently is experiencing considerable difficulty in finding enough applicants to fill 450 staff positions needed to run the property when it opens next month.
The Radisson's difficulty actually may say more than is readily apparent about a potentially broader problem for developers of large hotels in suburban communities and, indeed, about the structure of the region's economy.
When looked at in the total context of hotel construction around the Beltway, the scramble to hire 450 staffers at the Radisson is a sign of a regional problem. The Radisson has a problem filling jobs today. Three months from now, the same could be true of a hotel in Fairfax County or in Prince George's County, or service-type jobs throughout the area.
Fairfax County officials recently reported that a record $399 million in commercial construction has created a "dynamic climate" for hotel development and expansion in the county. Never before in the county's history have so many hotels been under construction or planned for development, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority boasted in a monthly report on business growth.
An FCEDA survey turned up some impressive figures to support those claims. At least 21 new hotels and expansion projects will provide an additional 4,867 rooms over the next two or three years.
In Prince George's County, meanwhile, commercial and industrial development also is creating a surge in hotel construction. Between 1,200 and 1,450 hotel rooms will be added to the inventory in Prince George's County this year.
That's the good news, as far as economic development is concerned. Now, the bad news: Most major jurisdictions outside the District report unemployment rates of 3 percent or less, prompting some economists and local government officials to talk of a labor shortage in those areas. The so-called labor shortage is most pronounced in service-type jobs that require little skill.
For the most part, the biggest pool of unskilled workers can be found in the District. But, for most District residents in that category, getting to the jobs in the suburbs poses a problem. They either don't have automobiles or the jobs aren't close to public transportation, as in the case of the Radisson.
The issue, then, is not the Radisson's difficulty in filling staff positions (most of them unskilled jobs). It isn't just a problem for the District, even though the city's unemployment rate of 8.1 percent is more than double that of the entire region. It is a metropolitan Washington problem. Suburban counties will find it harder to attract development if there are not workers to fill the jobs. It is potentially the Achilles heel of the area's economy, and it cries out for a joint solution by area government officials and business leaders.
High tech may be the rave these days, but the fact remains that more jobs requiring less technical skills are being developed across the spectrum of the services sector. Most of those jobs are being generated in suburban employment centers that are not close to public transportation. Indeed, hotel and restaurant jobs, among others in the services sector, are proliferating in support of those employment centers.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade is on target in establishing task forces to study the area's unemployment and transportation problems. The board's timing couldn't have been better. But before undertaking another lengthy study of unemployment problems -- the Greater Washington Research Center already has defined the extent of the problem -- the board ought to consider a suggestion by Matthew Shannon, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DES).
Shannon believes what's needed is a partnership that would develop a jobs referral system as well as a redesign of some existing public transportation routes to facilitate travel to and from suburban employment centers. Such a partnership would include the city's DES, the Board of Trade, the hotel industry and Metro officials. Maryland and Virginia state employment commissions also should be partners in that venture. Indeed, closer cooperation among those agencies would solve problems such as the Radisson's in much less time than it has taken so far.
Cooperation is really the key. It is what the authors of a recent study had in mind when they suggested how to deal with structural changes in the economy.
"Local jurisdictions continue to promote their own economic development policies, but these policies are not selective and tend to follow trends rather than set them," wrote Stephen S. Fuller and Andrew Shapiro in their study, "The Changing Economy of the Washington Area."
The evolution of the local economy will be affected by the "accumulated actions" of individual businessmen and public officials, and the product of those groups' actions will affect the employment and income levels of residents of the region, they added.