Report: Eagle County lost jobs, built new businesses in 2020
Regional report’s numbers need a bit of explanation
At first glance, a bunch of numbers jump out of a regional economic update published recently by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Those numbers need a bit of explanation.
The council of governments does research about and provides services for five counties in northwest Colorado: Eagle, Grand, Jackson Pitkin and Summit. The latest report measures activity between the end of the third quarter in 2019 and the same period in 2020. That quarter ends at the end of September. As you’d expect, there are a lot of declines in the report, thanks primarily to the economic punch thrown by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking at the raw numbers, Eagle County has the biggest numbers in virtually every category, due to having the largest population.
One of the biggest numbers in the report is 5,734, the decline in Eagle County’s labor force. The labor force decline actually exceeds the drop in the number of jobs in the county.
Most of those job losses were in the accommodations and food services sectors, as well as outdoor recreation.
But much of the decline in the labor force can be attributed to people either moving away or leaving the workforce for other reasons including child care and the need to be home while kids were learning remotely.
A long road back?
Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer said it could be some time before people return to the workforce. Romer said it could be some time before the labor force returns to its 2019 levels.
“I think the jobs will come back much faster,” Romer said.
In fact, there are a number of businesses looking for help now.
“All of my members are always saying they don’t have enough employees,” Vail Chamber & Business Association Director Alison Wadey said. That applies in large part to front-line, service sector jobs.
But the Vail Valley Partnership reports that Eagle County’s unemployment rate is 7.3%. That’s a lot of people out of work, putting a lot of pressure on local food banks and other social service providers.
Given the economic disruption caused by the pandemic, a lot of people have decided to create their own jobs. The study shows more new businesses opened in Eagle County — 108 — than the combined total for the region’s other four counties.
“When jobs are lost, the community has been very entrepreneurial,” Romer said, adding that the county saw the same trend during the national recession of 2008 and 2009.
Again, though, the number doesn’t tell the entire story. While some of those new businesses were created by locals who didn’t want to move, or had a new idea, other business people moved here.
It’s all COVID-related
Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Regional Business Recovery Coordinator Jeff Andrews said that group and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns are jointly working on a migration survey that will include tracking the influx of sole-proprietor businesses into the valley. No matter the proportion of locally-started and move-in businesses, all are “directly related to COVID one way or other,” Andrews said.
Another number that requires some explanation is the increase in average wages across the region. In Eagle County, research shows a year-over-year 12% increase in average wages.
Andrews called that number “a bit of a false flag.” That’s because higher paying jobs weren’t the ones cut in the pandemic. Andrews noted that number is likely to decline when figures are compiled for the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of this year.
Andrews said given the current and future demand for front-line workers, there could be some pressure to offer better pay to those employees.
Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr hopes that happens.
Acknowledging that mountain resort areas have limited opportunity for economic diversity, Scherr added that “we want to build back differently” as the pandemic fades.
“We had too many low-wage jobs,” Scherr said. Better jobs, with better wages, “ought to be the focus of our new opportunities,” he said.
And, while the current study is the most recent data available, it’s going to take time to see what changes came in the last quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of this year.
Romer said he believes that data will show a number of people returning to the workforce. Only time will tell whether that’s because of entrepreneurism or growth from existing firms.
108: Increase in Eagle County businesses from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020.
4,565: Job losses in Eagle County for the same period.
5,734: Decrease in Eagle County’s workforce during that period.
12.2%: Increase in the annual wage for that period.
Source: Northwest Colorado Council of Governments