One job won’t cut it
Jeff Miles didn’t move to the mountains for his job, but he certainly needs one to stay here.The Summit County man and his wife, Jennifer, both work – earning about $70,000 annually – to pay the mortgage on a Dillon condominium. They have two sons and opposite schedules: he works nights, she works days. That’s not unusual for a middle-class family living in Colorado’s ski resort communities. But it’s not the norm in other parts of the country. “We grew up in the same town in Massachusetts,” Jeff said. “Everyone reminds us of how easy it would be.”While most middle-class families cite quality of life as the reason for moving to the mountains, they sure do work a lot. In many cases, middle-class families need more than one job per adult to make ends meet, said Travis Bennett, a state labor employment specialist for Colorado’s resort counties.Housing costs are the driving force behind the High Country’s workaholics. Not only do many work more than one job, they often work odd hours to avoid paying for expensive child care, which can top $700 a month for full-time care. Some have managed to grasp one of the handful of higher-paying professional jobs. Most aren’t working for a career, however, but for a paycheck.All of this makes the future of the High Country’s middle class look discouraging. Bennett’s office has seen evidence of wage increases in many middle-class jobs, and more middle-class jobs overall. But state officials are predicting an influx of retirees and second-home owners will cause housing prices to rise even more. While those retirees and second-home owners will create hundreds of new jobs, the people who will fill them may have a hard time finding a home of their own.”Some stop looking and leave all together,” Bennett said.
Balancing work and familyStay-at-home moms (or dads) are an increasing rarity across the country. They are even more scarce here in the mountains. “Female workforce participation in our counties are some of the highest in the country,” Bennett said. “It correlates very directly to the housing price.”Having both parents work has made things a bit tricky for the Miles family. Jeff Miles has spent the past seven years bartending and doing office work for the Blue Spruce Inn in Breckenridge. His wife, Jennifer, works for the Meridian Institute, a mediation firm.Opposite schedules and a nearby parent have allowed the couple to avoid child care expenses and spend more time with their children. Time together, however, is limited.”We have a few friends who are single parents,” he said. “We can kind of relate to them. She works all day and as soon as she comes home, I leave for work.”Miles has a degree in environmental science, but pursuing a job in that field isn’t worth it to him. He’d actually make less money than he does now, and he couldn’t work nights.But living in the mountains makes it all worth it, he said, adding that his life is actually less work-centric than it would be somewhere else.”I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
‘Real’ jobs are out thereJoe Blair has a slightly different perspective on the job situation in the High Country. The 10-year resident of Eagle County is from New York City, one of the few places in the country that is more expensive.”I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there for people, it just depends how determined they are in finding that,” he said. “A lot of them are college graduates but a lot of them want to screw around and do the ski bum thing.” The New Yorker did the ski bum thing for a while. After graduating from college, he wanted to explore the West. But his first stop, for a lacrosse tournament in Vail, ended up being his last. When he decided to stay for a while, he got a job driving a van for the National Velvet dry cleaning company. He sold ski boots. He worked for the ski resort. He was a river raft guide. He worked two jobs at a time, rented an apartment and had roommates. Then, he decided, “it’s time to look for a, quote, real job, unquote.”First was a job working the information desk for the Vail Valley Tourism Bureau (now, the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau). He worked his way up to a job in marketing for the tourism bureau, which led him to his current job as vice president of operations for the firm, Untraditional Marketing.Blair got married and was able to buy a condominium in East Vail three years ago. He and his wife are looking to move up, into something bigger. “It takes baby steps,” he said.
Some people just don’t want to work the extra hours, Blair said. “It’s what expectations they have and what they are willing to do to meet those expectations,” he said. Overworked with no place to goMost people Blair knows who have moved away did it for a career, not for a cheaper place to live. That’s not always the case, however. There are plenty of stories of people leaving because they can’t afford to live here. The Aspen Times reported last December that Basalt Library director Robb Heckels resigned his job in less than a year because he couldn’t find an affordable home. He reportedly had been commuting from his family’s home in Colorado Springs. Heckels declined to be interviewed for this story.In the meantime, Lake, Garfield and Park counties play host to thousands of Eagle, Pitkin and Summit county workers. According to the state’s labor department, 60 percent of Leadville residents commute out of Lake County for work. Lower wages and fewer jobs overall are their reasons.When the mines closed near Leadville, it took away a lot of jobs, Bennett said. Now Leadville and Lake County – home to several of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks – are courting the tourism industry. That could create more jobs, and better paying ones at that.While it’s true that tourism and the presence of second-home owners create plenty of jobs, it’s actually more of a burden on the labor market than a help, Bennett said. That’s because second-home owners purchase homes local workers could have bought and then drive up real estate prices.
There is some hope on the horizon, however. Wages, which remained stagnant during the recession following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, are growing, Bennett said. Salaries for carpenters, plumbers and other construction-related labor jobs are going up. Front-desk clerks and employees in other lower-wage service jobs also are making more money. Demand for health care workers – particularly nurses – and automobile mechanics is stoking an increase in wages, too, he said. All the while, housing costs continue to soar. Between 2003 and 2005, home values went up 8 percent in Pitkin County, 17 percent in Eagle County and 24 percent in Summit County, according to the Eagle County Assessor’s Office. “That doesn’t really help the situation if you want to establish permanent working families,” Bennett said. “Because the working families can’t afford it.”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado