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Annual Economic Summit takes vital signs of business community

The Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Summit, hosted in-person with masks, drew a large audience Friday morning as business leaders scheduled an economic health checkup.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Judging from the full auditorium Friday morning at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, where some 130 area business leaders gathered, the Yampa Valley business community needed an appointment for an economic health checkup.

This year’s in-person Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Summit titled “Economic Health: Time for a Check Up,” focused morning sessions on taking the economic pulse of the region due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some key vital statistics include housing stability, jobs with quality wages and worker retention.

Opening speaker Brian Lewandowski, executive director of the Business Research Division at the Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado Boulder, explained the labor pool in Routt County was 1.7% smaller in September compared to September 2019, which translates to 269 fewer available employees. However, the current statistic of 15,659 people in the Routt County labor force is exacerbated by the fact that many employees decreased their number of part-time jobs during the pandemic, he said.



“Because people are working fewer part-time jobs, the labor force is not going quite as far,” Lewandowski said.

Despite the current unemployment rate in Routt County of 3.6%, compared to 2% prior to the pandemic, the number of available workers is now lower overall. The labor pool decreased due to workers moving during the pandemic and service sector employees not returning to the workforce or looking for other types of employment. Many older workers decided to retire during the pandemic because the strong stock and housing markets aided their finances, and fewer adult children came back home to live with parents during the pandemic-induced recession, he said.



“Potential employees have gone away, so there are not as many people in the labor market to fill those jobs as did before,” Lewandowski said.

On the bright side, Lewandowski cited positive, increasing or recovering economic factors in Colorado, such as sales tax collections, personal income growth, labor force participation rate, jobless claims, average annual pay, residential home foreclosures, business bankruptcy filings and business formations, especially limited liability companies. A negative economic factor in Colorado is the current 6% inflation rate for goods and services compared to prices last fall.

Complicating the local labor market is the fact that 53% of Routt County jobs are concentrated in five industry sectors, which rank from one to five: accommodation and food services; retail trade; local government; construction; and arts, entertainment and recreation. Three of those top employment sectors, excluding government and construction, were some of the sectors disproportionately affected or hardest hit by the pandemic, he said.

The imbalance of those job-heavy sectors compared to national statistics evoked the morning’s loudest audience reaction — a collective wry laugh. Routt County stats show, for example, seven times more employees than the national average working in arts, entertainment and recreation and almost four times the national average in the real estate, rental and leasing sector.

Lewandowski noted Colorado is projected to return to prepandemic employment levels by late 2022, but the leisure and hospitality industry will take longer to recover in employment levels until 2023. He noted families that earn less than $50,000 per year suffered more economically during the pandemic.

Speaker Carolyn Tucker, a business services coordinator with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said the local shortage of workers points to the importance of focusing on employee retention, positive company reputation and growth opportunities for workers within local companies. Tucker said the pandemic caused a time of “great reevaluation” or “great resignation” for many workers, noting, for example, 3.2 million workers retired across the U.S. in 2020, up from 1.5 million retirements in 2019.

Jason Peasley, executive director of Yampa Valley Housing Authority, told the Economic Summit audience that a strong foundation for local housing includes stability, affordability and mobility.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Tucker said the top four reasons workers consider changing jobs in 2021 include better compensation and corporate benefits, better work-life balance, lack of recognition for work and better corporate culture. Tucker encouraged owners and managers to check in with the health of their businesses and go back to foundational basics to retain employees, including developing a strong on-boarding process for new employees for the first 90 days.

“Once you hire someone, how do you keep them? It’s not enough to just get them in the door,” Tucker said, noting 25% to 33% of new hires leave within three months.

Tucker said employees who have flexibility and are treated fairly and honestly can be proud to work for a company and become the most cost-effective source of finding new employee talent by encouraging their friends to work with them.

Tucker also encouraged owners to have a business continuity or succession plan in place as older workers or leaders retire or move on.

“How many people are stepping away in the next five years? Who needs to be skilled to take those positions?” Tucker asked. “Do you have a process to capture all that experience that is ready to walk out the door?”

Tucker said 42% of valuable company knowledge is unique to individual employees. A new hire can spend up to 200 hours chasing down or re-creating lost data and processes. She encouraged more employee cross-training and mentorships by older employees for newer employees. The common practice of telling a new employee that their predecessor is still around in the community and available for questions is not appropriate. Overlapping some time when the retiring employee can stay on the payroll to work alongside the new employee is better.


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