When she started working the front desk at the Breakwater Inn in Kennebunkport two years ago, Leanne Travers couldn’t believe how strained the staff seemed to be.

“It was a rough summer, we were so understaffed,” Travers said. “All the administration were working as hard as me. I said, ‘This is nuts.’ ”

Travers, 72, grew up in the oceanfront town and worked in the hospitality industry as a teenager before leaving for college and a career in finance and administration.

When she retired to her hometown a few years ago, she still needed – and wanted – to work.

After her experience in Maine’s labor-starved tourism economy, she wondered if her peers felt the same way.

“I kept thinking – I cannot be the only person of this age wanting to work,” Travers said. “Part time, seasonally, there have to be people out there who need to work.”

Leanne Travers, 72, and her supervisor, Heather Cox, at the Breakwater Inn. Leanne is one of many older workers who have been hired into the hospitality industry in the Kennebunk area as it struggles with chronic labor shortages. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Travers decided to find out. She worked her contacts at the local chamber of commerce, hotels and resorts to arrange a job fair last April aimed specifically at older workers.

The turnout exceeded expectations.

“We had absolutely no clue what the response was going to be,” Travers said. “I thought, if we get 25 people to the senior center, that would be good. We ended up getting 125; we were stunned.”

Dozens of people were hired at that job fair and others found positions afterward, said Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce.

“We felt like every single person who came in legitimately seeking a job that day, there was an offer for them,” Dolce said.

STARTING A TREND?

Jobs in Maine’s tourism industry grow by more than a third between the winter and summer seasons, topping out at about 86,000 workers in leisure and hospitality, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

But a historically low unemployment rate has made seasonal hiring difficult and an oversubscribed temporary foreign worker program isn’t delivering enough people to fill the gaps.

The problem is acute in seaside towns that have small year-round populations but are a huge tourist draw.

“The situation is compounded by the fact that many of those businesses are in close proximity to each other on the coast, competing for staff in the same labor pool,” said economist Glenn Mills, who compiles and analyzes data for the Maine Department of Labor.

To ease the shortage, business groups and the state government are recruiting seasonal workers from out of state, training hospitality apprentices and encouraging teenagers to get summer jobs.

Kennebunk and Kennebunkport looked in their backyards for workers instead.

In Maine, the oldest U.S. state, about 19 percent of the state is 65 years old or older, but in those two towns about a quarter of the population falls into that age bracket, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That presents opportunities for seasonal businesses, Dolce said.

Many retirees are willing to work to supplement retirement income and keep active and social, she said. Plus, older workers tend to live in their own homes and don’t need employer housing assistance and can fill in positions in the busy fall tourism season when high school and college students go back to school.

“There is a great need for those folks,” Dolce said. “They bring a maturity, a work ethic. It is a way for them to feel valued in the community, and a little spending money doesn’t hurt.”

The community’s approach is refreshing, said Peter Letourneau, chairman of the Older Workers Committee at the Maine State Workforce Board. The Nonantum Resort in Kennbunkport won one of the committee’s Silver Collar awards last year for employing older workers. It is rare for a hotel to get the distinction.

“It is unusual for people in the hospitality industry to win the award, because they focus on college students and people from away,” Letourneau said. “This year they did not.”

A focus on Maine’s older workforce is still a novel idea and there have been no resources to create a state initiative around the issue. But Letourneau can see similar job fairs taking place elsewhere.

“It is a beginning trend,” he said. “We are very happy to see it.”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

The Colony Resort, one of Kennebunkport’s most recognizable hotels, found four workers at the job fair last year. In recent years, filling 130 seasonal positions at the hotel has become a serious challenge, said Leslie Sheppard, the front desk manager at the hotel. Finding an untapped pool of labor already in town was a welcome change.

“We became aware that we have lots of capable seniors and older folks in the community,” Sheppard said.

Workers were hired at the front desk and gift shop to take advantage of experience in town.

“We need people with local knowledge, someone who can recommend to guests a nice place to take an evening walk or a nice restaurant to go to,” Sheppard said. “We found it was a good fit for that reason.”

Charlie Nobles didn’t wait for a job fair. Nobles, 67, moved to Maine last year “on a whim” to be closer to the ocean. Right away he started sending out resumes listing his decadeslong hotel career, including 30 years at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. It didn’t take long for him to get a full-time front desk position at The Beach House Inn in Kennebunk. He’s headed back this summer, Nobles said.

Partly, the job is necessary to add to his Social Security payments. But there are other benefits. Many older hotel guests appreciate being welcomed by someone their own age, and younger workers like working alongside someone with so much industry experience. Hospitality companies are starting to recognize the benefits, Nobles said.

“I think that this is a new trend,” he said. “They can supplement their workforce with part-time older workers.”

Reaching out to retirees won’t solve the labor shortage alone, but it made enough of an impact that the chamber plans another job fair in April.

Those workers were always available but may not have known local businesses were looking for them, Travers said.

“I think most of these people have been thinking about doing part-time work, but they didn’t know where to go, what was available and who was hiring,” she said.

If other parts of Maine take the same approach, Travers thinks it could be successful elsewhere.

“I don’t see why this can’t be replicated up the coast of Maine,” she said.

“I’m not sure it would be as successful everywhere, but it certainly would be in Cumberland County all the way up to Bar Harbor.”