A labored issue: No easy solutions to employee shortage in Grand County
Coming over the hill on Berthoud Pass, the “Welcome to Grand County” sign had an addition that made locals snicker: Someone posted a “Help Wanted” sign.
The uncredited image of the welcome sign asking for help hit close to home in a county where it seems almost every business has a similar sign on its front door. The employment shortage in Grand County’s resort community is not a new phenomenon, but this summer feels different.
Jeff Williams, who owns the Winter Park Pub, put it this way: “Since 1998, I’ve only had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in my window once. Since COVID, I’ve had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign up in the window since we started operating again in May (2020).”
Kait Burkholder owns Chase Escapes, a property management and maintenance company that she started with her husband in January. Burkholder, who’s been in the industry for 13 years and considers herself “a lifetime local,” was in the middle of cleaning a property as she explained her struggles.
“There’s work. There’s so much work, but there’s just not enough people to do it,” Burkholder said, adding that she often turns away work because she doesn’t have the manpower.
Almost no industry is immune from the worsening labor shortage, and Grand County Economic Development Coordinator DiAnn Butler thinks it’s reaching critical mass in Grand County.
“They’re shedding hours,” she said of local businesses. “That’s that critical mode that they’re in. They’re turning away business. They’re closing their doors more frequently … They’re still having to take on less work because they just don’t have the capacity.”
According to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment, there were 1,737 job postings in June for Grand County. During the same month, an estimated 501 people were unemployed.
Sarah Anderson works two jobs — painting and cleaning — both for $20 an hour. She estimates she works around 50-60 hours a week, though she doesn’t have an exact count.
“I don’t really know because all I do is work and sleep,” she said.
Anderson, who has lived in Grand County her whole life, is currently staying with friends. She has been searching for a one-bedroom apartment priced at $1,000 a month or lower, but can’t find anything.
She also has a service dog, Scooby Doo, which makes the challenge to find housing that much harder. She occasionally camps so she can spend time with her dog, but otherwise a friend watches Scooby for her.
That friend’s lease is up in October, and Anderson might have to leave the county if she can’t find a place to stay with her dog.
“Once (my friend) loses that house, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Anderson said. “… I grew up here. I don’t want to leave the mountains. If I go somewhere else, then I’ll have to relearn everything. That just sounds like a crap situation.”
When Butler looks at the employment situation in Grand County, it’s long-term residents like Anderson that she worries about the most. As rents and mortgages increase locally, Butler is seeing the labor shortage extend beyond the seasonal workforce that Grand County has always struggled to staff.
“It has pushed some of the long-term workforce to make decisions, and it’s forcing some of them to leave the valley,” Butler said. “That is — I mean, it breaks my heart. Those are volunteers, with kids in the school system, are in jobs that maybe they’ve been in for many years. They’re community members all the way bought in, and if they’re making those hard decisions, that’s painful.”
Rachael Thackston Bullock was looking at that hard decision earlier this year when her lease was up and her family had no place to go.
With three children ages 6-12, they would like to buy a home, but there was nowhere Thackston Bullock’s family could afford, despite the couple both being fulltime employees with decent credit scores and some savings.
As Thackston Bullock and her husband considered whether they would have to leave the county, they were lucky enough to find a place to rent with her employer, River Run.
She explained how the mental health toll of impermanent housing is part of the conversation that seems to get ignored. On top of that, Thackston Bullock has found that having to move so often drains family savings that might otherwise go toward a down payment for a house.
After moving three times in the last year, she feels lucky to have a lease at a place that might be a little more permanent, but it still doesn’t feel like home.
“My kid said the other day, ‘Mom we should try to stay here as long as we can because we really like our friends in this neighborhood,’” Thackston Bullock said. “I never had that feeling growing up.”
Thackston Bullock and her husband are still looking to buy a house, but she’s not sure when or if they might be able to afford to move on one in the county.
“We’re willing to ride it out,” she said of the housing crisis. “We’re fortunate enough that we’re able to ride it out. But how many people from our community are we going to lose because they can’t?”
Trying to pinpoint what’s causing the labor shortage is complex. Christina Oxley, the regional business services representative for the Colorado Workforce Center, emphasized that the labor shortage in Northwest Colorado was here before the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the pandemic has changed the nature of work. Remote working saw a jump when many businesses were forced into it, and this pulled some workers from the Grand County labor pool, even though they’re still employed.
Oxley pointed out that millions of women have left the workforce across the country, in large part due to childcare needs. Grand County, an aging community with a high percentage of seniors, had a lot of people on the cusp of retirement who retired earlier than expected with a pandemic threatening their health.
“That caused kind of an earlier exit of the workforce, and it came as a shock,” Oxley said.
Then there’s the housing shortage, which also existed before the pandemic but not to the same extent. Oxley covers five counties in Northwest Colorado, including Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Grand and Jackson. Despite the diverse economic drivers in these areas, the housing shortage has now reached them all.
“I have two resort communities that have had a housing crisis for 20 years. My rural communities have not until now,” she said. “Now, there’s not one single community in the area that I cover … that is not having a housing crisis.”
The biggest problem, besides just a lack of employees, is a skills mismatch. Many of the industries hiring in Grand simply don’t have enough workers to fill all the positions.
Oxley has heard stories about employers waiting until supplemental unemployment runs out, thinking that people will get back to work once the extended government benefits end. She said she hasn’t seen any data to support that.
“In October, if you don’t hear any employers having trouble hiring, then we’re going to say unemployment (payment) is the issue,” Oxley said. “If that happens, I will eat my hat.”
Looking at the industries struggling to hire, there are simply not enough employees to fill the positions.
The biggest number of job postings in June, the most recent month available for data, was in transportation and material moving occupations at 278 openings. According to the state, there’s only 25 unemployed people in Grand who work in that industry.
Health care is another area that’s always struggled to hire. In June, there were 230 postings with only three unemployed people in that industry. Maintenance and repair had 125 openings and 27 unemployed.
While the mismatch varies, there’s almost no industry in Grand that has enough unemployed people with those skills to fill every advertised position.
“We’ve got a 1,200 difference between the number of unemployed and the job postings in Grand County,” Oxley said. “We just don’t have the bodies.”
JUST BUILD IT
The labor shortage goes hand in hand with the housing shortage, worsened in Grand by last year’s East Troublesome Fire, which burned down more than 300 homes. While most people know that building affordable housing would help the labor shortage, it’s easier said than done.
With a shortage of workers in all the industries related to construction, it’s nearly impossible to build any housing, let alone affordable housing.
“All the money in the world can’t get a house built in some of these areas because there’s no people to build it, and building materials are unbelievably expensive,” Oxley said.
Butler thinks that housing is the biggest driver of this labor shortage, which isn’t new or exclusive to Grand. Getting affordable housing on the ground can’t happen overnight, and new developments alone won’t be enough to fill the labor gap.
“There’s no easy solution,” Butler said. “Everybody wants to say, ‘Well, just build it.’ But it’s complicated. We’ve all got to approach it from different angles.”
Others things like short-term rentals and second homeownership add to the complexities of housing affordability in a county where tourism makes up 78% of the local economy.
“I feel like every time we talk about it we get lost in this fight of second homeowners versus locals and who’s more valuable to the community and who means what to the community,” Thackston Bullock said. “At the end of the day, we have to have both things to make it work.”
The businesses struggling to hire in Grand County are the same ones that depend on tourism. There’s high demand for services across the county, just not enough employees to keep the doors open.
“I understand and can appreciate our specific economy thriving on tourism,” Burkholder said. “It’s fantastic. We love that, but here before too long there’s not going to be any locals to run this tourist economy because no one can afford to live here. Even if you have the money, there’s not a physical structure to put them in.”
So where does that leave Grand County businesses?
“There is no indication that anytime soon we will not be in a labor shortage, which means that businesses can’t keep waiting,” Oxley said. “(They) can’t sit back and wait for the unemployment system to change or more people to move to an area that can’t house these people. Employers need to be very proactive.”
Increasing wages is one way to recruit more employees, but at many businesses the pay is already as high as it can be. Burkholder said she pays entry-level cleaners $25 an hour.
“Cost of living is so high, it’s not keeping up with wage structure,” Butler explained. “I also understand, as an employer in the tourism industry, there’s not a lot of margin there, especially when you’re closing your door more.”
Flexibility is another way to attract employees and Butler has been working with employers about that at recent Work in Grand meetings. Jobs that can work around and with things like childcare needs are looking to better advertise those offerings on http://www.WorkInGrand.com.
Butler emphasized collaboration as a way to work through these issues. She encourages business owners to get involved with Work in Grand, which has monthly meetings at 1 p.m. on third Thursdays.
Williams at the Winter Park Pub is changing his winter menu so that the restaurant can handle busy times with fewer people.
“In the restaurant business, you have to adapt and overcome,” he said.
For individuals wanting a more systemic change, Oxley encouraged them to get involved at the town and county levels. Constituents should be asking questions of buildable lots and if regulations are holding back the development of affordable housing.
And for employees, Oxley explained that this is also a time of opportunity. She encouraged people to apply for jobs that they may not think they’re qualified for.
“This is the time to get hired by a company, prove your worth, learn on the ground and make better money, whereas when there’s not a labor shortage, you might not ever even have that opportunity,” Oxley said. “Here people’s opportunities for upward mobility are stellar — if they can find a house.”
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After their soccer game Saturday, the Grand County Wildcats suited up for a very different type of game.