The Helpless Rich

The scene at Doggie-Do and Pussycats, Too!, an exclusive pet salon, was bordering on chaos last week. Harry, a white maltese, was having his Fourth-of-July ribbons out; Tawny, an apricot poodle, was halfway through a coiffure; and Valentino, Pipsqueak, and Truffles were expected any minute. On the strength of such brisk business, the shop recently moved to a huge new space and expanded its services. But now they can’t find enough qualified people to staff the place. “It’s our biggest nemesis,” says Harold Binder, a partner. “We advertised in The Village Voice and the Times and the response I got was horrific.” Having searched a year and a half for two recent hires, the salon now offers longer vacations, better benefits, and bonuses.

Similar scenes are being played out at posh addresses all around New York. Though the city’s unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, State Comptroller Carl McCall confirms that local shortages have arisen in specialized occupations. The city’s well-publicized search for teachers and lifeguards is just part of the story of the current labor market: Several years into the boom, so many consumers are willing to shell out for so many previously obscure services, there just aren’t enough people to provide them.

“If the stock market is buzzing, then we are buzzing, too,” says Renato Salvacion, of Carey Limousine NY Inc. – which as a result finds itself desperately shorthanded. “Seven months ago we started offering finder fees,” he says. Employees who find new sedan drivers now get $500; for limousine drivers, the bounty is $1,000.

Restaurants have also resorted to premiums to attract skilled kitchen staff. Au Bon Pain and Cheesecake Factory have started offering five-digit signing bonuses. And the situation gets worse further up the scale. “In New York the rage is on, employees are down to zero,” says Blue Water Grill’s Stephen Hanson. To keep his staff happy, he’s started handing out cash for day trips.

Sommeliers, once required by only a few top spots, are now a necessity for respectable restaurants. “There’s an explosion right now,” says Bob Moody, of the Sommelier Society of America. “Even diners have wine lists.” Scrambling to accommodate the demand, the group has doubled its class size.

Beauty and fitness specialists are in similarly short supply, sending some spa owners into a most un-spa-like tizzy. Dr. Steven Margolin upgraded his small storefront operation to a 3,000-square-foot Wellness Spa last year, but couldn’t hire a masseuse. “We couldn’t even get calls back,” he recalls. Despite offering an almost unheard-of benefit package, he ended up having to import someone from St. Louis.

Of course, in cases such as these, an employer’s misfortune is often an employee’s windfall. Many have been able to ride the rising market, trading up from entry-level jobs to senior positions. “Manhattan has become a mecca for the personal-service industry which is now supported by out-of-work artists,” says Mitchell Moss, director of the Urban Research Center at NYU. And many others have been able to hold out for the most attractive offer. Hala Khouri, a highly sought-after aerobics teacher, ticks off the concessions she won from her employers: “They paid me in cash to get me to stay there, and any time I want they’ll completely change the schedule to accommodate me,” she says.

Those who study fluctuations in the labor market, however, are careful to point out that the current conditions won’t last. “In ten years, I’ve seen two cycles,” says Arnold Huberman, a public-relations headhunter whose business, like that of his proliferating colleagues, has grown along with the Dow. “Eventually it will all even out.”

But even if the bull market goes bust, there may still be one low body count that no benefit package can overcome: Area medical schools have joined the trend by reporting a troubling shortage of cadavers. Perhaps they ought to make do with headhunters.

The Helpless Rich