Vail Valley employee shortage affecting business operations, expansion plans
By the numbers
Here are some numbers from the 2017-18 Workforce Survey Report from Vail Valley Economic Development:
2.7 percent: Eagle County’s unemployment rate in 2017.
43 percent: Responding businesses with positions that remain unfilled for two to three months.
31 percent: Responding businesses that report an increase in unfilled positions.
59 percent: Responding businesses expecting to add between one and four positions in the coming year.
Source: Vail Valley Economic Development/Vail Valley Partnership
EAGLE COUNTY — As the valley grows, a number of local businesses want to grow, too. But a lack of employees is hampering that growth.
Tim Braun, the operations manager of Eagle-based R&H Mechanical, a heating and air conditioning business, said that firm could take on between five and 10 new people right now. But, he added, those people have been hard to find.
“We don’t want to hire just anybody,” Braun said. “You have to have people skills; you have to have mechanical skills.”
Braun said R&H hires from within when possible and offers on-the-job training, as well as various certification courses.
The pay is good, too — between $25 and $30 per hour for someone with perhaps three years of experience.
Braun said the struggle to hire new people has “affected our opportunity to go out and expand as much as we’d like to.”
The lack of qualified employees is affecting a number of businesses across the valley.
A total of 88 local businesses took Vail Valley Economic Development’s annual workforce survey for 2017-18. Of those, 15 percent reported that it took four months or more to fill an open position. Many more — 43 percent — reported that it took two to three months to fill open positions.
Those are both significant increases from just a couple of years ago. In the 2016-17 survey, only 19 percent of survey respondents reported taking 60 to 90 days to fill open positions. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported filling open positions in two to four weeks.
At Ewing Trucking and Construction, Katie Jean Ewing said that firm has a right-now need for three heavy equipment operators and one heavy truck driver.
“We’ve passed up bidding on work — we don’t feel we can man it,” Ewing said. “It would jeopardize our existing work.”
Applicants, but no employees
Ewing said the company has advertised both locally and online. A lot of applications have come in, but hiring is still hard.
“We’ll reach out to ask a few more questions, and no response,” Ewing said. “We’re not getting applicants from people in this valley.”
It’s not easy to work the busy season at Ewing — or just about any other trucking and construction company. Employees generally put in about 10 hours of overtime every week.
On the other hand, the work pays well. Ewing said an experienced equipment operator could start at about $25 per hour.
Like R&H, Ewing promotes from within when possible. At Ewing, someone would probably have to start out as a laborer and then move up to running small equipment before getting some training on the big machines.
Still, Ewing said, there are some jobs that aren’t feasible for less-experienced operators.
Surveys often cite the area’s tight supply of housing as an impediment to hiring.
In the most recent workforce survey, more than 60 percent of employees listed “finding housing they desire at an affordable price” as a “major frustration.”
In the 2015-16 survey, that number was 53 percent. In the 2012-13 survey — just as the valley was pulling out of the economic slump that hit here in earnest in 2009 — only 9 percent of employees listed housing as a “major frustration.”
As the housing crunch has intensified, Braun said lack of housing “is impactful” in finding new employees.
But, Ewing said, housing is a “difficult, but not impossible” hurdle to clear.
A valleywide shortage
The employee crunch isn’t just for skilled labor.
At Organic Housekeepers, owner Tim Szurgot said he could use another 20 people right now.
“We’re turning down work left and right,”
Szurgot said. In fact, he added, the company has an opportunity to essentially take over the housekeeping for a local hotel but would have to give up other work to do that.
Szurgot said that in his 15 years as a business owner, the current environment is “hands down the hardest” he’s seen in finding employees.
Housing is a large factor, Szurgot said, adding that there are options in the western Eagle River Valley, Leadville and even Summit County.
“It’s just that there’s so much other work available,” Szurgot said, acknowledging that construction jobs are better-paying than working in housekeeping.
As opposed to now, Szurgot said that 2009 was one of his firm’s best years for staffing, as layoffs started hitting hard in many other businesses.
“People needed work, and we had it,” he said.
And, Szurgot said, he doesn’t see any relief on the horizon.
“There’s not necessarily light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.