JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — “Now Hiring” signs dot the windows of local businesses in the Tri-Cities, and many have been there for months. Now, local businesses and economic leaders hope newly moved-in college students will fill those empty positions.

Both Panera and Red Mezze in Johnson City employees said they’re hiring for all positions. They said typically, many of the people they hire are college students looking to make money while attending school, but recently it’s been a lot harder to find employees.

“Right now, we’re just looking for basically all positions,” said Grace, a Panera shift leader. “We need cashiers, line people, dishwashers — literally any positions you’d want to apply for we have.”

Grace has worked at Panera for two years and said this is the lowest amount of staff she’s seen. She estimates they have about half the staff they normally employ.

Cory Bachetti, a server at Red Meze in downtown Johnson City, said the pandemic hit at the worst time. Bachetti said they struggled to get the word out when the location first opened, but slowly started to gain more attention — then the pandemic hit.

“There was a lot of foot traffic, which kind of helped build it slowly, but then last year happened, so as soon as we started getting the ball rolling, it came to an abrupt halt,” said Bachetti.

While neither Panera nor Red Meze has had to close down their dining room or limit service, they are seeing employees pick up extra shifts or work doubles to keep everything running.

“We’re hiring for everywhere…specifically servers; we only have two right now,” said Bachetti. “Which is a handful considering I’m in school and the other also has school and priorities and another job.”

Grace said they “make it work.”

Panera and Red Meze aren’t the only places struggling.

The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Cantler said they’re seeing it across the service industry, though they are starting to see change. He said he hopes they will continue to trend up.

“There’s a lot of hope that they’ll fill those positions,” said Cantler. “Although we have a lot of students that live here year-round. So there’s a good foundation of young people who are here, but through Milligan and through ETSU, we’re hoping that we’re going to catch up on our hiring for a lot of our smaller businesses.”

The Chamber of Commerce is holding a showcase on the ETSU campus Wednesday, August 25 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the courtyard beside the Culp Center in hopes of connecting students and employers — not just with service industry employers, but with the potential companies where they can intern.

Cantler said he is seeing college students turning toward internships and jobs that relate to their majors, but he’s seeing other people take a pause from the workforce, whether it’s college students or other adults.

“Right now it’s kind of a dynamic time,” said Cantler. “There have been stimulus dollars; there have been other initiatives; there have been people saying, ‘Hey, I’m just going to back out of the workforce for a bit until I see what happens.'”

According to Cantler, businesses are getting creative with how they attract workers. He said businesses are figuring out what works best for their needs and the employees. They are assessing who they can find, train, and keep onboard.