Need workers? Why not charter a private jet?
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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WAILIN WONG, HOST:
We are out here in front of THE INDICATOR Theater in Los Angeles, USA, and central bankers from across the nation are walking the beige carpet in their finest designer clothes.
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
I spotted the New York Federal Reserve Bank dressed all in gold lame, a salute, obviously, to their massive vaults of gold they have in their Manhattan headquarters.
WONG: Very fancy. The Dallas Federal Reserve is sporting embroidered tuxes and, of course, cowboy boots.
SMITH: That's so they can kick some butt. It's that night of nights, the award ceremony that economics nerds have been waiting for.
WONG: Although, I mean, it does happen about every six weeks, so they haven't been waiting that long. But still, the excitement, it's palpable.
SMITH: It is. It's the moment when we celebrate economic storytelling in an obscure government report. It's the Beigie Awards. I'm Robert Smith.
WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. Tonight, we will give the award to the best anecdote in a government publication known as the Beige Book. We do the reading. You just sit back and enjoy the winners - after the break.
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SMITH: OK. First, an explanation - (singing) this is how we do it.
There are 12 regional divisions of the Federal Reserve, and each one peers into their local economy and brings back little stories of what they see. And it gets published every couple months in the Beige Book. We tell you the best stories, and we give out awards.
WONG: Now, the world of banking is in a bit of turmoil at the moment, stressful times. Maybe that's why a bunch of anecdotes in the Beige Book this time around talked about vacations, hotel bookings, spa services and spring break.
SMITH: Even economists have to dream about a spa day.
WONG: Any rational actor would. But even as we have our holiday fantasies, the stories in the Beige Book show that real life is getting in the way. You remember, Robert, how there was a boom in lavish weddings after the pandemic? Well, now the St. Louis Fed is reporting that people are being more realistic. And they are the runner-up for the Beigie.
SMITH: I will read from their entry. Quote, "a Memphis-area wedding planner reported a decline in spending on 2023 weddings, noting that couples are choosing less expensive options and spending wedding funds on honeymoons and house purchases instead."
WONG: You know what? I applaud that practicality. And I will point out my parents give cash for wedding gifts. They've been doing this since time immemorial. They will not be caught dead buying a blender off a registry. It's cash all the way.
SMITH: You know, I would suggest these days, Treasury bonds make a lovely gift and grows at 4.2%.
WONG: And now, the moment you've been waiting for - the winner of the Beigie Award. Can I have the envelope, please?
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WONG: And it goes to the - I can't believe this. They won only a few months ago. They are back. The Beigie Award goes again to the Minneapolis Fed.
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SMITH: The award is being accepted by Erick Garcia Luna. We spoke to Mr. Luna on March 10, and he last accepted the award in December.
ERICK GARCIA LUNA: Thank you, Robert. I feel like we're becoming good friends now.
SMITH: You're just showing off. You're just showing off to the other Feds.
LUNA: Not trying to. You know, I think I speak for the Beige Book team here in Minneapolis when I say that we're honored to receive this award once again.
WONG: We do like to spread around the awards, but there was no denying the Minneapolis Fed this time. They had two anecdotes that really wowed us. The first was the perfect illustration of how hard it is still to get workers in some parts of the country.
SMITH: I will quote from their entry - "a Montana construction firm has found it economical to rent a jet to fly workers in to one of its plants" - I'm going to repeat that - "to rent a jet to fly workers in to one of its plants to fill operational needs." Hiring local employees, quote, "would have been our first choice, but we had to adjust when we could not staff that way."
WONG: I love how the adjustment involves a private jet. That's really fancy - very fancy adjustment.
LUNA: Many times, particularly in construction too, workers have to drive long distances to a jobsite, right? And in this case, hiring a charter plane was the solution for this company to get those workers that they needed who would otherwise have to drive. I believe they saved around six hours to get that job done.
SMITH: So is this, like, early in the morning, a bunch of guys with hammers and buckets...
LUNA: That is a good question. We did not get into that much detail. But that is...
SMITH: ...Are getting on the plane?
SMITH: Do they get snacks? How long is the plane flight?
LUNA: I'm certainly hoping that, right? I hope they get some peanuts at least in the morning. But no, I wouldn't know. We didn't get into that.
WONG: If someone wants to fly me someplace, first class maybe, to host radio shows and podcasts, my phone line is open. Call me.
SMITH: The second anecdote from the Minneapolis Fed looked at things from the worker side of the equation. And workers are pretty fed up these days. Reading again from the Beige Book entry from Minneapolis - quote, "some workers formerly in food and hospitality said they quit their jobs in recent months to start their own businesses and have more control over their lives. At the beginning, I was afraid to leave a job I had done for 15 years, shared a former cook, I've been cleaning houses for a few months now and I am much happier."
LUNA: We heard, for example, that some who had been working in restaurants, as you mentioned, often long hours, we heard that from them - were in pursuit of more flexibility and more control over their time. And so they decided, might as well start my own business, try something new.
SMITH: What were you hearing from these people when you asked about the challenges they were facing to start their own thing?
LUNA: It depends on the type of business that they're going into. We also talked, for example, to a couple that was starting a food truck, right? Like, they were - they decided to buy a food truck. And so that requires obviously more investment. They were running into a little bit of a financing hiccup, but they were confident that they were going to get there.
WONG: Obviously, working in a restaurant is incredibly hard work, but so is running a food truck. We talked to a couple of people who have started food trucks, and they said it's like a different kind of hard.
SMITH: We couldn't find any available food truck owners in Minneapolis. They are probably too busy. But I did reach Vincent Mangual. He owns the Empire Barbeque truck here in Brooklyn. And what are we talking, Texas barbecue? Are we talking Memphis barbecue?
VINCENT MANGUAL: Yeah, you know (laughter) I think we're New York barbecue, you know? We take a little bit from everywhere.
SMITH: Vincent used to work in kitchens around New York City - restaurants, catering - but during COVID, he gave it up completely for food trucks. There were health reasons, he said, but also he was just tired.
MANGUAL: Just generally, having to show up and do the repetitive nine-to-five kind of thing - or, you know, in the restaurant business, be more like nine-to-midnight kind of thing where you're working 16, 17, 18 hours a day for someone else, and you're kind of just giving someone else all your money.
SMITH: So do you think you work fewer hours now?
MANGUAL: No. No, definitely not. It's February now, so the food truck season is kind of a little bit slower, but we're still doing six days a week, you know? I'm answering emails at 6 a.m. and at 11 p.m. I'm on call 24/7.
SMITH: So what's the benefits?
MANGUAL: The benefit is I work for myself. At the end of the day, I can make my decision and say yes or no, I want to do this, or I don't want to do this. And it's my decision.
SMITH: And, Wailin, this is the classic story of how even during hard times, people can be resilient. They can create new lives for themselves, new businesses and new jobs.
WONG: And that's also true about the other anecdote from the Minneapolis Fed. Businesses are getting more creative, too - renting jets and flying in the right people. What looks like a crisis can end up being a new way of working.
SMITH: Yeah, if we could just get these two trends together and get food trucks onto jets...
WONG: Yes. Imagine eating a huge slab of ribs on your way to your construction job.
SMITH: I love it. Congratulations again to the Minneapolis Fed and to multiple Beigie Award-winner Eric Garcia Luna.
LUNA: Great. Yes. I'll see you in about six weeks.
SMITH: Oh, come on. We got to give other people a chance.
LUNA: Sounds good.
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WONG: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Corey Bridges with engineering from Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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