In Eagle County job market with more jobs than people, ‘retention is crucial’ for employers
Unemployment in the county is now at near-historic lows
It’s long been true — or seemed that way — that Eagle County has had more jobs than people to fill them. That’s true now, but with a difference.
After the spike in local unemployment in the wake of the near shutdown of the local economy that began in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in the county is now at near-historic lows. The labor force is also at an all-time high of nearly 40,000 people. There are also more overall jobs today than there were in early 2020.
Mark Hoblitzell is the Colorado Workforce Center’s business services coordinator for Eagle, Lake and Summit counties.
Hoblitzell, like many others, is trying to get a firm idea of the implications of those numbers.
Hoblitzell said he and others wonder how much of that labor force growth is due to remote workers who now live full-time in Eagle County.
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A key takeaway, though, is that most people seeking jobs are already working.
“Retention is crucial,” Hoblitzell said. “That will be a long-term challenge in Eagle County.”
Staff retention depends in large part on pay, of course, but there’s more to keeping good people.
Working on culture
The town of Vail is working with the Great Place to Work Institute, using anonymous employee surveys to identify the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Vail Human Resources Director Krista Miller said the current efforts will soon include inviting employees to participate in workplace culture teams.
Miller said discovering employee needs can be complicated, and boils down to “how … we match employees’ needs and desires with where they are in their life.”
Some people want more flexibility in their schedules, while others are more interested in pay and benefits.
“We want to meet employees where they are (in their lives),” Miller said.
Despite the efforts, Miller said the town currently has a few more job openings than usual, and some of those positions — particularly entry-level jobs — are taking longer to fill.
At Eagle County, Human Resources Director Hollis Dempsey wrote in an email that organization currently has about 40 jobs open. That’s about 7% of the budgeted count of full-time employees. Those vacancies include both year-round and seasonal jobs. The county so far this year has seen a roughly 7% turnover in seasonal and full-time staff. Dempsey wrote that turnover is “slightly above” the same period in 2021.
While there are “high quality” applicants for many vacancies, Dempsey wrote that there are fewer applicants for positions including bus drivers, equipment operators and mechanics.
Housing is a chronic problem, of course.
“It’s proven to be hard to relocate applicants here, so we are focusing on a local-first approach and looking for ways to grow talent.
Dempsey wrote that Eagle County is also working on ways to provide flexible work opportunities by offering remote and hybrid work.
But, Miller noted, bus drivers, mechanics and others don’t have that opportunity.
The three Yeti’s Grind coffee shops in Eagle County — Vail, Eagle and Edwards — also rely on in-person staff.
Yeti’s Grind owner Larry Leith said his operation is “fortunate” with the people working there.
Still, “I think about it every day,” Leith said. While his company works to be an “employer of choice,” Leith noted that housing is near the top of the list of challenges to hiring.
Good employers struggling
“I know lots of good employers that are struggling,” Leith said, adding that housing is “overwhelming” for many people.
At the Antlers Lodge in Vail, Assistant General Manager Kim Newbury Rediker said that property has a few current openings, but will probably aggressively look to fill those posts going into the summer in order to find people who are “the right fit” for the organization.
The Antlers tends to hold employees for a bit longer than industry averages. Newbury Rediker said that’s due to a combination of pay, benefits and a culture that includes decades with just two general managers on the job.
“We get to know and care about each and every employee,” Newbury Rediker said.
Chris Evans is one of the owners of Evans Chaffee Construction. That firm has plenty of work at the moment, and Evans said the main company actually is fully staffed. But, Evans said, it’s a different story with subcontractors, which make up most of the crew on a project.
“Everybody still needs more labor,” Evans said. “That aspect of the job is (a scramble).”
While employers look for people, Vail Resorts recently announced a $20 per hour minimum wage. How is that going to affect smaller firms?
Leith said while margins are thin and getting thinner in the food and beverage business, he intends to compete with Vail Resorts on wages.
“We have to be very disciplined,” Leith said. “We don’t want to charge whatever we can charge.”
At the town of Vail, Miller said that organization is also committed to competing with the resort company, “with continued work.” For non-seasonal work, Miller said organizations need to find a balance between pay and “livability” issues from housing to child care to transportation.
That’s true for positions ranging from landscapers to department directors.
“It’s across the board,” Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer said. “It’s not just a hospitality problem or a ‘pay more’ problem.”
22%: Eagle County unemployment rate, April, 2020.
2.8%: Eagle County unemployment rate, January, 2022.
40,000: Eagle County labor force, January, 2022.