Vail Daily column: Workforce report provides insight to business challenges | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Workforce report provides insight to business challenges

Vail Valley Economic Development released this year's Eagle County Workforce Survey Report earlier this summer. It's an annual survey of the business community gauging feedback and soliciting opinions from business owners and managers on a variety of economic issues and business challenges.

Some basics: this survey has been administered in Eagle County since 2006-'07. The survey asks employers about their business outlook, their employees, and their forecasts for the future. This year's survey was administered between April 1 and May 6, with 128 businesses responding. This was an opt-in rather than a random sample or census survey, so a margin of error cannot be calculated. However, respondents were made up of small and large businesses representing a good cross section of Eagle County's economy, so these results can be used to reliably assess trends affecting Eagle County businesses and our workforce.

Some key highlights and conclusions from the survey are detailed below:

• Business owners and managers have reduced confidence about the economy in general and their own business health when compared to the 2014-'15 results. A modest decline was seen among respondents in terms of opinions regarding current conditions versus the previous year. Optimistic predictions for the upcoming year declined more dramatically, especially for the Eagle County economy in general.

• Frustration with housing continues to grow and is substantially higher than in 2014-'15. Negative opinions about housing are higher than ever found in the history of conducting the survey. More than two out of three respondents feel that the housing situation negatively impacts their ability to hire and retain employees and this issue was mentioned frequently when asked about additional resources that are needed.

• Providing health insurance for employees continues to be a challenge.

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• Companies throughout Eagle County provide a variety of workforce wellness options and the percentage of businesses offering various options has generally increased or stayed the same over the past three years. Some of the most common options include accommodations for fitness possibilities during the workday, breastfeeding, reduced or free access to exercise facilities and incentives for healthy behaviors. Local employers seem to have responded well to recent community programmatic offerings better enabling businesses to access technical assistance and resources needed to employ these programs as a key element of their employee retention and recruitment strategies.

• Businesses that report plans to expand and/or diversify are the same as in 2014-'15, but are higher than they have been during the 2013-'14 or 2012-'13 survey years.

• The percentage of businesses that pay more than other parts of the state has stayed steady when compared to the previous year and those that pay less increased slightly.

What does study mean?

What does the workforce study mean for local businesses and support entities including towns, special districts, planning commissions, etc.?

Historically, the workforce study has shown to be a harbinger of upcoming economic trends; the local business community tends to foresee peaks and valleys before they show up in more standard metrics such as sales tax collections or lodging occupancy numbers.

This insight validates what we all know, and what is reinforced by the recent Eagle County phone poll: we're facing a workforce housing issue in Eagle County, and it is at crisis level. Frustration with housing rose dramatically in 2015-'16 and has exceeded the previous high point set in 2008-'09. Currently, those indicating it is a "major frustration" come in 14 percent higher than in 2008-'09 and those feeling "it could be better" is 5 percent higher. Businesses using the positive end of the scale are 11 percent lower. Similarly, the number of businesses saying housing negatively affects their ability to attract, hire and retain employees grew by 13 percent. Open response comments from the business community include "(housing) is probably the biggest obstacle we face" and "at this point however, the situation is of great concern as we grow".

Importantly, affordable workforce housing isn't limited to employee retention and recruiting. Housing also impacts local businesses' ability to grow and expand in Eagle County. Many businesses that completed the survey hope to expand, with improved housing options being listed as a beneficial resource to help them do so.

Eagle County is lagging behind our neighboring mountain counties such as Summit and Pitkin in development of a comprehensive, multi-jurisdictional approach to affordable workforce housing. Housing is the largest pain point for our business community, which restricts growth opportunities and thus job and career growth opportunities. It is our core community challenge, and something we all need to work together to address moving forward.

The complete figures and analysis of the survey can be accessed at http://vail valleymeansbusiness.com/data-center/workforce-real-estate/.

Chris Romer is president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership.