Concert Industry Scrambles to Hire Skilled Workers Amid Labor Shortage
Drivers, stagehands, lighting designers, you name it. A ramped-up touring schedule means companies are hiring and training new employees in a hurry.
Before Jason Tibbs could start his new career driving a tour bus for bands like Ghost and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, he had to sit in front of his computer for hours in December. The trainers instructed via Zoom: Check the electrical system, clean the bus regularly so it shines when it arrives at the venue, make sure the generators are working, memorize COVID-19 safety rules.
“There are a lot more steps in the tour industry,” says Tibbs, 48, a veteran driver who spent eight years on “seated” buses for sports teams and others. “It’s more of an upscale motor home. You’ve got to keep the food cold and the beer chilled. You want to take it smooth and steady.”
Tibbs is one of 20 employees hired over the past year by Pioneer Coach, a Nashville company that leases 60 tour buses, for stars such as the Dave Matthews Band and James Taylor. He represents a new problem that the concert industry, from buses to trucks to lighting companies to stagehands, is frantically trying to solve — as tours return to critical mass this year, pandemic-related personnel shortages are forcing companies to hire and train new employees in a hurry.
“It’s not just the coach industry, it’s the market in general. It’s just a labor shortage,” says Doug Oliver, the company’s general manager. “There’s a lot of demand for our fleet, which means we need more drivers. That’s a skilled position. We can’t just pull somebody off the street.”
“We’re getting more requests to send people out on tour, so we’re filling those holes. Then we have holes locally, on top of the other holes, because people have left the business or retired,” adds Jeff Giek, founder and CEO of Rhino Staging, a San Diego company that supplies stagehands and technicians for live events. “It creates the crazy situation we’re in now.”
After a non-existent 2020 and an on-again-off-again 2021, tour managers, production managers and promoters are preparing for a booming 2022, as Elton John, the Eagles, Justin Bieber and others return to the road. But many experienced concert-business workers have retired or found jobs elsewhere over the past two years, causing what Michael Strickland, chair and founder of Nashville’s Bandit Lites, estimates as a 30% decline in the labor force.
“We’re bringing these young kids in, and training them up,” he says, “but you can’t train them in three weeks and put them out there.”
As a result, training programs throughout the industry are filling up. According to Dave Lester, director of education for Clair Brothers of Lititz, Pa., which provides equipment and services for concerts, enrollment has increased from roughly nine or 10 students per training class to 12 or 15. “There is more demand,” he says. “A lot of clients want to get out there and tour. They want to make more money. There is more need for employees. We’re trying to fill a lot of vacancies.”
Whether they remain in the tour business, or are newly trained, skilled workers have found themselves in higher demand, and are able to draw higher salaries. A tour-bus driver in 2019 made around $350 a day with a trailer; today, that salary is $400, according to Pioneer Coach’s Oliver and others. To illustrate the opportunity, Mark Johnson, program director of show production for Full Sail University, a Winter Park, Fla., music-training college, recalls a student who became Blake Shelton’s video-camera operator within months of graduating last year.
“Normally, that doesn’t happen that fast,” Johnson says. “Everybody is looking to get more people into the pipeline, and we’re working like crazy to get them through.”
COVID-era uncertainty means it is risky for companies to provide expensive training for employees, since the tours they are prepping could be canceled with a new variant. “Pyro” Pete Cappadocia, a longtime special-effects tech who is a tour specialist for imageSFX, is struggling to gauge how many tours he’ll work with this year. “If we have five tours out, we go from a company of 20 to a company of 50,” he says. “We absorb people who are already in the industry — lighting guys, carpenters. We do take on trainees. But call me back in six weeks.”
But for many new concert-business employees, 2022 is an opportunity to break out of bleak pandemic jobs and resume their career goals. When Sophie Phillips, 25, graduated from Kent State University after concentrating in theatre and fine-arts lighting design, she worked at Cedar Point, then Sea World, before landing a job as a Bandit Lites moving light technician in March 2020. Then concerts shut down, and she took a job on the late shift at a Lowe’s in Nashville.
Six months ago, Bandit called back and re-offered her the original job. Phillips was nervous she had forgotten how everything worked, but her boss and a co-worker trained her on how to repair the broken equipment that tours and techs send to her desk. “I was pretty tentative about this job when I started, and I realized, just like every other job, we’re learning on the fly,” she says. “As long as you have an open attitude, and are willing to learn, we’re willing to teach people.”