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Ho, ho, no: For maker of wooden toys, the struggle ahead of Christmas isn’t finding supplies, but finding workers

In Vermont, some employers, facing unprecedented consumer demand, say the labor shortage is a bigger challenge than disruptions in global supply chains

Maple Landmark employees piece together “name trains,” one of the company's most popular products, in Middlebury, Vt. (Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Washington Post)

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — With eight weeks to go until Christmas, tensions were running high at one of Vermont’s oldest toymakers. As hammers fell on hardwood and machine tools cut train engines, managers gathered around a table to confront a daunting list of unfilled orders.

“We need 32 sets of chess pieces. I don’t have 32 sets,” assembly supervisor Anne Cummings told half a dozen colleagues, sparking a quick discussion of when the items might appear.

“Umm, hobby horses? We’ll want at least three to get finished by tomorrow at the latest,” process engineer Adam Rainville told the workshop foreman.

Unlike much of the toy industry, Maple Landmark isn’t suffering from a lack of imported materials as global supply lines buckle. The maker of wooden toys gets nearly all its lumber from nearby mills and has little trouble buying lacquer, paint and sandpaper from its Vermont suppliers.

As it fields an unprecedented crush of orders, the main factor holding it back is a shortage of workers.

“We’re just really, really busy and hiring workforce is a challenge,” said Mike Rainville, who founded the business 40 years ago. “We could use more in assembly. We can use more in the shop. I mean, really, any production position we can probably use help in.”

Rainville has been trying for weeks to hire three or four workers to add to his crew of 46, but competition is fierce. The cheese factory up the road has eight open positions. The cidery next door and the teddy bear factory on Route 7 have large “Help Wanted” signs outside. Maple Landmark has raised its average wage rate by more than 7 percent over the last year, Rainville said — the average production worker earns over $15 an hour — but some local companies with deeper pockets are offering signing bonuses, a perk Rainville said he can’t afford to match.

With an unemployment rate of only 2.9 percent, Vermont is an extreme example of a problem plaguing employers across the country. In some regions, a shortage of workers is more challenging to Christmas preparations than the global scarcity of semiconductors or the cargo deluge overwhelming ports.

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A nationwide shopping spree is exacerbating the strain on companies like Maple Landmark. Flush with cash from nearly two years of forgoing restaurant meals and travel, Americans are bingeing on products — electronics, clothes, gifts and anything else they can click into an online shopping cart.

In September, household spending on goods was 14 percent higher than it was as the pandemic was beginning in February 2020, according to David Wilcox, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. If normal pre-pandemic trends had continued, demand for goods would be only 5 percent higher now, he said.

Maple Landmark felt the surge as soon as it began. In early 2020, Rainville was grumbling to his staff about the surplus of Chinese checkers sets gathering dust in inventory. But by April and May, as Americans were trapped indoors under lockdown, “we sold hundreds of them,” he said.

A rush of online orders last year nearly made up for the collapse in Maple Landmark’s sales to shuttered retailers. Now, with many shops having reopened, “we’re getting hit from all sides,” Rainville said. “Every week we are falling further behind our incoming orders.”

Recently, the company stopped taking Christmas orders from new retailers so it could focus on its existing retail clients.

Maple Landmark has searched for workers the conventional way — with posts on the employment website — and the quirky Vermont way, with a sign near its kindling pile behind the shop.

The company leaves wood scraps there for anyone to take. This summer, Rainville tacked a piece of paper to the shed: “Help Wanted. Employees get dibs on scrap wood! Apply inside.”

That brought in a few candidates, leading to one hire. But other interviews led nowhere, perhaps because workers have so many choices, Rainville said.

“People come in thinking that, gosh, making toys, that sounds like fun,” he said. “Once they take a tour through the shop or something, they say, ‘Okay, this is work.’ And then, maybe if we had interest, we’d call them in for a second interview and they don’t respond.”

It’s also hard to find people good at working with their hands, Rainville said, a phenomenon he attributes to the decline in farming life, which taught people to fix and build things.

Vermont demographics — an aging population and a shrinking workforce — were already working against employers before the pandemic. With the new consumption surge, competition for workers has become extreme.

A few months ago, Rainville found himself vying with the local school bus company for one employee.

“We almost came close to getting her on full-time in the summer, and then the bus company called her up and said, ‘We need you in the fall and we’re going to pay you anything to have you.’ ”

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Signs of the problem are everywhere. In nearby Burlington, several long shelves at a CVS Pharmacy were bare, including large sections missing school supplies and ibuprofen. An employee said the pharmacy couldn’t find enough workers to stock the shelves, while a sign on the door said the store was trimming its opening hours due to staffing shortages.

Shopping at the CVS was Devlin Cahill-Garcia, a 20-year-old community college student who earns $13 an hour working at a shop on the other side of town. “I do have a job at the moment, but I’m trying to find a better one, which is easier than ever now,” he said.

When covid hit, some of Cahill-Garcia’s friends at the University of Vermont quit their part-time jobs in Burlington. Many haven’t returned, possibly because their parents can support them, he said. “After being unemployed so long, I don’t think a lot of people want to go back to work,” he said.

Down the road, Lake Champlain Chocolates has asked its administrative staff, including marketing director Allyson Myers, to take shifts in the factory to keep up with holiday demand that is 20 percent higher than in 2019.

“This has been a kind of organization-wide call of, ‘Okay, administrative team, we need you to step up and help us because we are short,’ ” said Myers, who has pitched in bagging Hanukkah gelt and peppermint patties.

The family-owned company also held its first job fair this month to try to fill about 20 openings and has raised its manufacturing starting wage by about 10 percent since last year, said Myers, who called the labor shortage a bigger problem than supply-chain issues.

Matt Parker, head of sales at Danforth Pewter, a workshop and retail business that sells ornaments and home decor, agreed with that assessment. The company has had no trouble getting pewter from its Rhode Island supplier but has struggled to fill about eight openings in production, customer service and retail, Parker said.

The company has raised wages this year — by 5 to 10 percent, he estimated — and is offering bonuses to new and existing employees. Parker said he doesn’t know why it has been so hard to hire, but guessed that the pandemic “obviously threw a lot of people off entering the workforce” and made them worry about getting infected.

At Maple Landmark, soaring demand and a lack of workers this summer stripped the company of its inventory, leaving it with little to fill the holiday rush. As a result, the woodworkers are making things to order as purchases roll in.

One of the company’s biggest sellers is the “name train” — a chain of brightly colored letters on wheels that spell a child’s name, between an engine and a caboose. Letters are everywhere in the workshop — an automated machine cutting a tray of O’s, a worker putting wheels on a carton of red H’s.

At the morning meeting, Cummings raised an urgent problem: They had run out of the letter E.

“Yellow E,” clarified Rainville’s mother, Pat Rainville, who works in production. The customer has specifically requested that color for that letter, so more would have to be made.

At her station downstairs, Pat Rainville motioned toward a wall of shelves that should have been stuffed with boxes holding every letter in a variety of hues. But many of the shelves were empty.

Things got so bad over one recent weekend that even the letter Q was in short supply, Mike Rainville said. “We know we’re low when even Q’s run out.”