Don Cohen: County’s workforce pinch hurts |

Don Cohen: County’s workforce pinch hurts

Don Cohen
Vail CO, Colorado

In the conference room at the Town of Vail the frustration meter was about to peak at 10. Around the table sat the managers of the town and the county bus systems along with the human resource managers. At issue was the challenge of being able to provide the seasonal increase in scheduled winter bus service.

A lot was at risk. Without the certainty of seeing this year’s group of seasonal driver recruits arrive, the Town of Vail would be faced with two nasty alternatives. The least worst would be a massive budget hemorrhage to the tune of $300,000-plus for overtime, bonuses and crisis driver recruitment. And with no certainty whatsoever that even throwing money at the problem would work, the next worst option would be to maintain a summer schedule. Imagine town guests’ reaction to waiting one hour for a bus instead of 15 minutes. It would be an economic and public relations nightmare.

This wasn’t a new discussion. For more than a decade the transportation system managers and human resources pros have skillfully and creatively negotiated a labyrinth of federal and state regulations and policies to bring highly skilled drivers for the winter season from Australia. The friendly Aussies, many of whom are professionals, have been the backbone of maintaining the quality of bus service that our locals depend on and our guests expect. And, when the safety of thousands of passengers is at stake, these are not jobs that you can afford to trust to untested and untrained workers.

These skilled drivers arrive under the H2-B visa program and can stay only as long as the winter season lasts. They must pay their own way, visa application fees, and rent (even in municipally owned apartments). Additionally, H2-B workers have 7.65 percent of their paychecks withheld for Social Security, which is not refunded back to them.

Beneath the facade of seeing our communities and county services hum steadily along there are massive sinkholes of employment failures just below the surface.

Earlier this year the Vail Valley Medical Center faced a tough shortage of operating room nurses. Perhaps, for now, it’s OK when a shop owner turns the “closed” sign around in the window to run an errand because there’s no one else to watch the store. But, the “back in an hour” sign just doesn’t cut it when a surgical trauma case arrives at the emergency room entrance or the paramedic response time for a coronary emergency takes more than 30 minutes.

To a point we can tolerate the effects of an employment squeeze. It shows up quietly as class sizes get larger in our schools, it’s harder to get assistance at a retail store, and when the wait to get your home heat back on may be measured in days not hours.

Officially, unemployment in Eagle County is at a very low point at around 3 percent, but anecdotally as the Eagle County Economic Council has checked with various employers in our upcoming workforce survey, the labor market may be even tighter than the unemployment rate indicates.

In recent surveys by both the Economic Council and Eagle County it is clear that the single highest economic concern in Eagle County is housing affordability. It’s easy to understand why. If you’re a two-income household earning $100,000 a year (that’s $20,000 over the area median income), without any significant debt, you could qualify for a $300,000 property under the assumption that you could put 10 percent ($30,000) down. And throughout Eagle County there are very few properties available in that price range and almost all of them are one-bedroom condominiums.

Apartment vacancy rates are essentially at zero and deed-restricted properties, which we refer to as residency qualified properties, infrequently come on the market and almost always have multiple buyers waiting in line.

Perhaps more troubling is that there is not one affordable housing project under construction today in Eagle County. Our tracking data indicates that there may be 70-100 residency qualified units coming to market in 2010 with a potential (but far less certain) 400-600 units by 2012.

Putting that in perspective, Eagle County, with a population of 50,000 has a current inventory of a little more than 700 residency qualified units. Over a third of the county’s residency qualified inventory is concentrated in one single development, Miller Ranch with 282 units. In comparison, Pitkin County, with a population of 15,000, has more than 3,500 residency qualified units.

The problem is so profound that in December 2006 the Urban Land Institute Advisory Services Panel, which was assigned the task of studying workforce housing needs in Eagle County, affirmed that, countywide, we are 3,500 units short of meeting market needs.

With resort properties such as Arrabelle and The Westin Riverfront coming on line between now and August 2008 and with more upvalley projects a year or two later, we expect a severe housing shortfall for both temporary and permanent employees.

Our local governments have started getting serious about toughening their stance on growth. The development community sees heavier requirements for offsetting the impacts of new development with more workforce housing as a dealbreaker. They claim that the burden of underwriting affordable housing will stop growth. The towns worry too that slowed growth will mean less future revenue dollars for funding municipal operations. In different ways, both of these opposing forces are being pulled forward by the siren of growth.

And while the discussion heats up, will the buses keep going this winter? Probably. With a lot of extra effort to get the Australians into the U.S. and equipped with commercial driver’s licenses, I think they’ll skate by, but the ice is very thin.

It says a lot about our employment market when you see how challenging it is to get a small amount of skilled workers and how less than a dozen unfilled positions can make a difference in maintaining an acceptable level of bus service. The warning signs are clear: throughout all of Eagle County, the workforce pinch is going to make us all much more uncomfortable.

Don Cohen is the executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County. The Economic Council of Eagle County is a joint venture partnership of the Eagle Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Vail Valley Partnership.

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