Has it ever been tougher to find employees in Eagle County?
Worker skills don’t match available jobs, say state experts
It doesn’t take an official report to tell Eagle County residents that there is a local labor shortage — the help wanted signs plastered in business windows and extensive local classified ad lists tell that story vividly.
But a deeper dive into a labor market analysis does reveal important characteristics about the dearth of local employees. It also debunks some popular theories about why workers are so hard to find. Recently a pair of representatives from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment presented that information to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.
Mark Hoblitzell and Jessica Veland outlined the state’s unemployment data collected in the most recent Eagle County Local Labor Market Update.
“Through 2021, we have seen a substantial reduction in our labor force,” Hoblitzell said. “In Eagle County, we have one of the highest labor force participation rates in the region, if not the nation.”
At 78%, that rate is actually down a bit from the county’s high water mark of 80%.
“That is very consistent across high cost of living communities,” Veland said. “People have to work to live here.”
Eagle County’s cost of living is 21.7% more expensive than the national average and that figure is likely climbing. Rental costs alone have increased between 20% and 40% over the past year, Veland said.
At the same time, the bulk of jobs in Eagle County fall in the $10 to $20 per hour range. Combine those two factors, and residents can’t afford not to work, even if when they get a supplement in unemployment benefits such as the extra $300 per check approved by Congress. That additional money simply isn’t enough to help people at the lower end of the wage pool make ends meet, especially for people employed in the leisure and hospitality sector — the largest employment sector in Eagle County.
“We are not talking about food servers and restaurant workers who are not willing to go back to work,” Veland said. “This is very different from what people imagine when they hear, anecdotally, from a restaurant manager saying, ‘I can’t hire anyone.’
“Even in the absence of the supplement to unemployment insurance, there just aren’t enough bodies to fill the number of jobs that are out there,” Veland continued.
Veland noted the decline represents an actual head count of people available to work. Anecdotal evidence suggests the loss reflects people at the lower end of the wage spectrum who were forced to leave the area because of the high cost of living.
“We just don’t have enough workers for the number of jobs,” she said.
Compounding the problem, Eagle County also doesn’t have enough workers for the types of jobs that are open.
In March 2020, COVID-19 caused the bottom to fall out of the job market nationally as businesses shut down throughout the country. By midyear, local jobs began to outstrip the number of available employees but several significant shifts emerged.
First, many women did not return to the workforce, likely because of changes in school schedules and family health care needs. Currently only 57.2% of Eagle County women are employed outside the home. That’s the lowest rate since 1988.
The second shift is a widened skills mismatch. The skills and education levels for many unemployed residents do not match the kinds of jobs available.
Veland pointed to recent unemployment data that showed of the people who are unable to find work, more than 2,000 individuals identified themselves as CEOs. But 70% of the local job vacancies seek only a high school diploma or equivalent. In short, the local pool of unemployed residents doesn’t match what the local job market wants. For example, recent job service center data showed there were 100 local applicants interested in food server jobs. There were 4,000 food service positions open.
This skills mismatch isn’t a new statistic, just an amplified one.
“The pandemic poured fuel on the fire,” Veland said.
Right now, Eagle County’s employers aren’t clamoring for CEOs, Veland said. But many employers are desperately searching for people who have commercial driver’s licenses or medical certifications.
“I guess if you are a truck-driving nurse, you are in high demand,” responded Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry. “Our labor force skills don’t match our needs.”
Additional data from the state shows another labor force change in Eagle County. There has been an increase in the number of residents who live here and work remotely.
“People who are moving in are making more money, potentially bringing their jobs with them,” Hoblitzell said. “Potentially that is good for an individual, but it’s not as good for our region for trying to fill some of our critical service positions.”
The state’s most recent data regarding labor migration was compiled pre-COVID-19 but it showed that many of the county’s workers commute to the area.
“On a given day, Eagle County imports about 15,000 workers,” Hoblitzell noted.
While the data doesn’t present a very rosy picture of the local job market, the state officials said understanding the numbers is a vital part of finding solutions.
“This is where you look at policy,” Veland said.