Job market blues
With jobs still scarce around the nation and in Colorado, the local employment market has been feeling the pinch. Small businesses, general contractors and seasonal workers are feeling the pain of less money, less work and an uncertain economic future
For now, local employers and workers are playing a waiting game and hoping the market will shift soon.
Making ends meet
John Brgoch of Eagle has been working on construction projects in the Eagle Valley since 1972. In 1977, he started his own business, Independent Builders Inc. Due to the local economic slump, he is currently working as a sub-contractor supervisor for Double R Contractors, leaving his own company in limbo until more work is available.
“Usually downturns aren’t very long. This is the longest I’ve seen,” said Brgoch.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Brgoch, like others in the valley, was left struggling to find and keep steady work while making ends meet for his business and his family. Left in the lurch by a suddenly canceled project, Brgoch found himself without a job.
He was able to find work quickly because of his reputation and contacts, but the work was in Boulder. Brgoch took the Front Range job, coming home to his wife Lynn and son Rob on weekends until he was able to find work again in the valley.
“It was less money and I was traveling back and forth. We’re still scraping to get back to where we were. It’s still creating financial hardship for us,” he said.
The uncertainty of where the next paycheck will come from is not just limited to the seasonal and construction trades. Upper management and other higher skilled workers, many who never worried about the slow seasons in the past, are also being hit.
“We have been very low on available management jobs. That has been a trend for probably a year,” said Mary Morgan, an employment specialist at the Colorado WorkForce in Edwards.
The lack of management or specialty jobs in technology caused former Vail Resorts employee David Miller, 50, of Edwards, to re-evaluate himself, his career and his ability to live in the valley.
Miller, a longtime visitor to the valley, was recruited by Vail Resorts in 1999 as a specialist in travel and resort technology. A 20-year veteran in his field, he jumped at the opportunity. He and his wife, Anne Wenzel, and their two children relocated to the valley from Philadelphia. In May 2001, he was laid off when Vail Resorts began downsizing. Two years later, he is still looking for steady work in his field.
“The obvious employers outside of Vail Resorts, and there aren’t a lot of them, are East West Resorts and Booth Creek Ski Holdings, but they are suffering the same type of economic issues,” said Miller, who has done some consulting and hourly project work in the interim in order to bring in some money. He has also worked with the Colorado WorkForce Center in Edwards to sharpen and develop new skills, and has taken career development courses at Colorado Mountain College.
“The current environment in the valley is that there is no “plan B’ for people like me. It’s been a very disappointing experience,” said Miller.
He said many upper management workers are imported by larger companies. In his opinion, that approach limits the valley’s opportunity to re-deploy and utilize local talent and skills. He added it is frustrating for someone with extensive upper management experience to be over-qualified for many of the valley’s resort management jobs, yet under-qualified for entry-level resort jobs, including front desk operations and direct sales.
Wenzel, Miller’s wife, is currently employed as president and executive director of the Western Colorado Community Foundation, and has been able to support them. She splits her time between regional work in the Eagle Valley and Grand Junction. The family will soon relocate to Grand Junction where Miller will have fewer financial worries, but still no job.
“We are hoping to relocate without losing all of our life savings,” said Miller.
Where’s the work?
Workers, businesses and employment specialists agree the national economy is the driving force behind unemployment in Eagle County.
In the past, the local labor market has been driven by seasonal employment, the high cost of living and housing in the county, all of which meant there were more jobs available than people to fill them. Today that is not the case.
According to the Colorado Department of Labor, the preliminary unemployment rate for June in Eagle County was 5.2 percent with a total of 809 people unemployed. According to Morgan, the number of applicants for available jobs is up while more workers with degrees and management experience are looking for work.
Morgan helps manage the state’s unemployment programs in the valley and has been an employment specialist for the past 22 years. In the past year, she has seen a more diverse range of people looking for work than in years past.
Job-seekers range from the highly skilled and college educated to less-skilled workers, including high school students. Employers seeking the center’s services have also reported getting more applicants for jobs.
“Unemployment in Eagle County is generally not that bad as compared to other places in the state,” said Morgan, noting unemployment figures through the summer months have been high for the region.
Local unemployment also has other side effects. Impacts can be seen in social-service requests along with a rise in foreclosures and bankruptcies.
As of Sept. 2, the county had 75 homes in foreclosure for 2003, said Kathy Knox, deputy public trustee for Eagle County. There were only 79 home foreclosures for all of 2002.
While the county doesn’t track the number of bankruptcies, Knox said she believes there has been a steady increase in the number she processes.
“On average, I get at least three a week, where last year I maybe had one a month,” she said.
Even with an increase in home foreclosures and bankruptcies, County Treasurer Karen Sheaffer doesn’t think it will affect the county’s bottom line.
Sheaffer said her office collects about 99.9 percent of taxes owed. She also said her office won’t really know the impact on tax collections until the tax-lien sale in November.
Morgan said she is optimistic the job market will soon turn around. Others, like Brgoch and Miller, are less so.
“It’s not that good right now. Things are still slow and not selling. I know a lot of other contractors are downsizing and cutting their labor force,” Brgoch said. “It’s feast or famine, but it’s always been like that.”
With more people looking for construction work, general contractors have more choice about who to hire and they can also pay less for the jobs than in the past, he said.
“If we don’t sell one of the speculation homes I’m in line for, I’ll have to find work for the winter. Maybe I’ll go back to remodeling,” said Brgoch, who has done work in residential, commercial, custom and multi-family building. “I’ve even moved a house. You just do what you can to stay busy.”
Miller added, “People are chasing jobs, not vice versa.”
“Most companies prefer to bring people in at the management level rather than hire a local,” he said. “Just being invested in the community here is not enough to get a job here at my level. That’s hard to swallow.”
Morgan, though, sees better days ahead.
“Seasonal jobs will pop up again in the late fall,” she said. “There are not as many as we had three years ago, but the seasonal job market is a constant that comes back around as long as we get snow.”
AT A GLANCE
This site allows job seekers to file for unemployment, look for jobs and offers information on a variety of Colorado Department of Labor programs.
The official State of Colorado Web site offers links to on-line filing for unemployment benefits, Colorado’s job bank and information about unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation.
– The Colorado WorkForce in Edwards
A program of the Colorado Department of Labor, The WorkForce offers educational and retaining programs for job seekers. It also assists local employers looking for workers and helps job seekers write resumes. For information call Mary Morgan at 926-4440 or come into the center located at 0057 Edwards Access Road #23.
“The current environment in the valley is that there is no “plan B’ for people like me. It’s been a very disappointing experience.”
– David Miller
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise