More summer worker woes predicted on OBX

By on May 23, 2023


Lack of housing cited as key reason for the shortage

As the calendar closes in on the summer season, local business owners are expressing concern that the chronic staffing shortages that have plagued the Outer Banks for the past few visitor seasons will continue to affect customer service, hours of operation and revenues.

“I think most businesses will be short staffed this season,” John Harris, President of Kitty Hawk Kites, told the Voice. Kitty Hawk Kites with retail locations throughout the Outer Banks, is one of the largest private employers in the area.

Ongoing staffing shortages are also predicted for the local restaurant industry, a trend that directly impacts hours of operation, according to Wes Stepp, President of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association and owner of NC Coast Grill & Bar and Red Sky Cafe in Duck.

“There are very few restaurants that actually stay open seven days a week anymore,” he noted.

Stepp points out that in a seasonal economy in which many businesses rely on a three-month window to generate more than half their annual income, being closed for one or two days a week will be felt on the bottom line.

“Anytime your doors are closed, you’re really losing revenues. But you’ve only got so many people, so you can only do so much,” he said. And for Stepp, it’s not just the loss in revenue that is concerning. “It does affect the visitors’ experience. [Even] when the restaurants are all open, there’s not enough restaurants for as many people that come down here to stay,” he added.

Harris echoes Stepp’s concerns about revenue and customer service. “It does affect service and impact sales…Our people are trying really hard, but our customer service right now—it’s not to the level that we want it to be. We’ve got really good people and they’re trying really hard. But they’re spread so thin,” he said.

Nonetheless, Harris does expect some improvement over last year. He said there has been an uptick in the number of applications his company has been getting, although he adds a cautionary note.

“We have more American students applying this year than last year. But still not enough. And the same with international students, more are applying,” he said. “The programs are getting going again, but still not enough.”

The international students are the J1 students, foreign exchange students that apply through the U.S. State Department in a cultural exchange program that is significantly different than a work visa issued through the U.S. Department of Labor. By way of example, J1 students are full-time students who are allowed to work to offset the cost of applying for the visa and living in the United States during their visit. However they are required to file regular reports on what they are experiencing while in the country, according to Jamie Banjak, of the Outer Banks International Student Outreach Program (ISOP).

“Participants have to take part in cultural exchange activities and report on that every single month,” she said.

Banjak agrees with Harris that there will be more J1 workers this year than last year, but she said those numbers, although uncertain at this time, will be significantly less than in the pre- COVID years.

“I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere near where we were [with] pre-pandemic participants on the Outer Banks,” she said. “In 2019, we had almost two thousand participants.”

In analyzing why the number of JI students has shrunk so significantly in recent years, Banjak explains that attracting students to an area for employment is very competitive and there are other locations that can offer services that do not exist on the Outer Banks.

“If I’m a participant in Bulgaria, and I decide I’m going to shell out a few grand and come on this program for the summer…am I going to go to Buxton, where there’s no public transportation? Housing is really expensive. There’s no movie theater…Or am I going to go to Ocean City where there’s…airports and nightlife? These participants have a lot of options,” she said.

Although Banjak cites a number of factors that go into deciding where to work for the summer, a critical housing shortage is cited consistently by her and others as the most significant reason for ongoing staffing problems.

“There are a lot of places that participants can choose to go for their summer,” Banjak said. “And they have a lot more available housing.”

For Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown, housing is the most critical community need.

“Housing, that’s a problem across the board, whether it’s summer, winter, fall or spring. It’s not getting any better,” she asserted. “If we don’t fix that, we don’t fix the workforce problem.”

Stepp also sees housing as the central factor in the ongoing effort to adequately staff businesses.

“There’s nowhere for people to live, so it’s really hard to keep that good steady workforce going, or that summer workforce where they can come down and find some place affordable to live and work through the season. There’s nowhere down here like that anymore,” he said.

Even Harris, who offers employee housing at Kitty Hawk Kites, has been feeling the effects of the housing shortage.

“We’ve added more housing. But we still we still don’t have enough for everyone,” he said. “We encourage everyone to look on their own and try and find housing.”

Ultimately, Banjak says, it’s about how the Outer Banks community thinks about balancing a thriving tourism economy with the needs of the businesses and workers that serve those visitors.

“We do everything we can to make things so easy for our tourists to come here and we do [very little] to build the infrastructure for our workforce,” she said.


  • mac

    greed, greed has destroyed and is destroying us. we killed it our self. more building, more tourists, stores. low wages for employees. just see the future when all the tourist become your year round neighbors. It will become what they left to get away from. vote to stop it.

    Monday, May 29 @ 9:39 am
  • obx1234

    Where are the J1 students going to live and work?

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 7:48 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    The students can’t come here unless they already have a job and a place to live. There are numerous living arrangements that often involve rentals that are shared by the students. They tend to work at places like Food Lion or restaurants or in other service sector jobs. As we noted in our story, one Avon business owner is employing about 25 of them this summer. I guess the salient point is that this isn’t a situation where the students just show up here and try their luck. This is all prearranged.

    Wednesday, May 31 @ 8:41 pm
  • snoopymonday

    The amount of tourism we have been experiencing is unsustainable given our infrastructure and labor market. We should see tourism taper off as people are unable to afford the high rental prices, lack of services, because of labor shortages and it goes on. But the changes that are occurring cannot be undone no sense wishing we could go back to the “old days”. Relators and the tourism board have done an excellent job promoting the OBX.

    Friday, Jun 2 @ 11:26 am