The early morning ferries for the near-shore islands are packed. Dozens of commuters carrying lunch buckets are heading out to the islands to work. While walking down the ramp onto the ferry you might hear a common refrain from visitors: “Why don’t island businesses hire on the island?”

Within the answer lies a longstanding dilemma for year-round island businesses and island residents alike. If you are an island resident, you can generally make more in the summer months by fishing or catering to seasonal visitors. If you run a year-round island business like a store or boatyard, then you may have a harder time hiring island residents because they need the flexibility to take advantage of the higher earnings that come with warmer weather.

I’ve had a number of revealing discussions recently about this subject with island entrepreneurs. They have fishing businesses, construction companies, care-taking businesses, boat yards and food establishments. In fact, many of the families I’ve spoken with have at least two if not three of these businesses running at once.

Getting by isn’t easy.  

Put yourself in the shoes of someone looking for summer work. As an island resident, you might chose to take a job making two to three times the national average to provide caretaking or gardening services in your community between May and September. Seasonal residents are happy to hire on the island, even more pleased to get to know an island family, and willing to pay a competitive price to retain great service.

However, if you are the boat yard or store owner who needs consistent staff year round, it is hard to keep an island-based employee on staff on a year round basis when it makes more financial sense for the year round island resident to take a summer job.

The result is that you are unable to keep island residents on staff at your store or boat yard year-round. Where do you look next for employees? The mainland.

Mainlanders who don’t mind commuting might be happy to have year-round employment on island. After all, mainland residents can make as much or more for similar work on an island.

The wages paid by year-round island businesses that hire mainland employees may be more aligned with mainland businesses, but additional costs accompany this hiring strategy.

Mainland employees may begin their workday from the time they get on the ferry. Under this scenario, the year round island business owner pays for an eight-hour day but they receive six or less hours of work. Additional transportation costs include paying for round-trip ferry transportation and to park a car on the mainland (during the summer when parking is limited).

Add to the cost of labor a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in the costs of supplies and other goods, and it is easy to see why it could be very difficult to turn a profit in a year-round island business.

Running a profitable business can be difficult, and even more so a year-round island business where the cost of labor and goods far exceeds those of similar mainland businesses. Let’s support these local businesses knowing that these challenges exist, and that they are reflected in the price we all pay to enjoy summers here. 

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter: @ProOutsider