‘Labor pains’ worse elsewhere | SteamboatToday.com

‘Labor pains’ worse elsewhere

A new government report depicts a bleak future for resort communities in Colorado. Because of the skyrocketing cost of housing, statistics indicate that labor pools will continue to be depleted over the course of the next 20 years, leaving two of three jobs unfilled by 2020 in ski towns across the state.

But some Routt County officials believe availability of labor in this area will likely be better than in most other Colorado resort communities.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments released a staggering report this year on Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Summit and Pitkin counties. Numbers illustrated in the report show an estimated 65,683 jobs, in all areas of the communities, will go unfilled in those counties by 2020, primarily due to the lack of affordable housing — and the council of governments is reporting that these numbers are on the conservative side.

Gary Severson, the executive director of that council, said the group is taking the numbers to employers now, before it’s too late to take necessary precautions.

“We want to develop partnerships with area businesses to promote employer-assisted housing programs,” Severson said. “We’re taking this information to the local chambers of commerce to show the communities it’s in their best interest to provide housing or housing subsidies so that employees can afford to live and work in these resort areas.”

Routt in good position
Although not a member of the council of governments, Routt County belongs to the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. Jim Evans, the executive director of that group, said the county is in a better position than other ski counties across Colorado.

“In every resort town across the state there’s a high real estate level,” Evans said. “Factor in tourism with lots of lower-paying, entry level and seasonal jobs and it makes it really difficult for people to afford housing. Routt County needs to look at this issue as a whole, but Steamboat has done a better job than other resort towns in dealing with the problem.”

Evans was referring to the Regional Affordable Living Foundation’s recent efforts to purchase land west of Steamboat and construct a possible 80 homes in the price range of $120,000 to $150,000.

Evans said that Routt County’s diverse economy with a mixture of tourism, energy industry and agriculture has enabled it to more steadily cope with the growing pains of a desirable place to live than areas such as Eagle County.

“Routt County has the ability to address these issues on a local level rather than a state level. People in the county accept the need for affordable housing. Some other resort communities are not accepting the need and they are going to be in bigger trouble in the future.”

Although Evans said Steamboat is addressing the problem of affordable housing, he pointed out that in 1998 the average price of a home in Routt County was $276,572 and the average income in the county was $24,888. The cost of a home had increased 20 percent from 1997, but the average wage had only gone up 6 percent.

Lynn Reiff, sales representative for Norwest Mortgage, said a two person household, each making $24,888, would have a very hard time making a mortgage payment on a home priced at $276,572.

“Two people with minimal debt, together making $50,000 a year and putting 10 percent down would qualify for a home in the $167,000 price range,” Reiff said. “There’s a big gap here that doesn’t work. In most cases we see people using a co-signer to purchase a more expensive home or getting a huge gift from a family member.”

Available land is key
Sandy Evans, the chamber’s director of community development, said that Steamboat has more options for affordable housing than other resort communities.

“We have available land and potential for construction on that land,” she said. “Land is the key piece and other areas have maxed out their land. We have lots of options and a community that is willing to invest dollars in these options. This is what’s kept our affordability down in comparison to other areas. People are aware that if we’re going to retain our work force, we’re all going to have to pay for this.”

Evans said she is hopeful that the supply of workers will go up in the next five years, but until that time, Routt County employers will have to be creative.

“The problem right now is a basic lack of supply across the country. This impacts everybody. There’s no place in the U.S. that has a high unemployment rate so we have to look to immigration to help us out,” Evans said. “We worked with businesses this season to get J1 visas and H2B visas. It’s about a six-month process and we tried to get an employee that could work at more than one business on the visa.”

A J1 visa is a practical training visa for people such as college students, Evans said. An H2B visa is typically designated for a seasonal worker. The business requesting the visa has to prove that no one is available within the United States to fill the position before the federal government will approve it.

“I see this trend continuing but housing is another component. If we can’t help these foreign nationals find an affordable place to live, they can’t come here to work,” Sandy Evans said. “For the 1999-2000 ski season, the community brought in more than 200 foreign nationals to help work in the service and ski industries. It’s an increase over previous years and yes, it’s a lot of people.”

Steamboat advantage: Employee housing
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. is notorious for not only bringing in foreigners to help with the lack of workers to fill seasonal jobs but also has been praised for providing employee housing.

Trish Sullivan, human resources director for ski corp., said that without the foreigners and the employee housing, the company would be in dire straits.

“We are providing 420 beds for our employees,” Sullivan said. “It’s difficult to find affordable housing but we’ve managed to keep costs down for our staff over the years. It’s a big help when we’re recruiting for staff to tell people we have a guaranteed place for them to live.”

Ski corp. offers two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium units that are fully furnished to its employees. Sullivan said that with two people per bedroom the cost is $235 per month per person.

Despite ski corp.’s employee housing options, the company finished the season with an average of 10 percent of jobs unfilled, a number Sullivan said is higher than in years past.

“We really tried to supplement the labor shortage with foreign nationals and this was extremely successful,” she said. “This is a huge program for a lot of resorts. It’s a buyer’s market right now for employees. College students who used to come out and work can go right to work out of college and make a lot of money in their chosen field. The skiing industry job just isn’t as enticing as it used to be.”

Sullivan said that ski corp. will continue its foreign visa program but will make efforts this summer to beef up its American work force.

“We’ll probably increase recruitment on the road, but we’ll do it both in the U.S. and internationally,” Sullivan said. “We’re not planning on offering any more benefits than employee housing to our staff, but the housing has been a great success.”

One solution: Better pay
Pat Bonny is an employment specialist for the local Colorado Workforce Center. She believes that solutions to the limited workforce are going to come in good old-fashioned greenbacks.

“Our current unemployment rate in Routt County is 1.09 percent and we’ve been riding at that number for quite a while, even though our labor force increased by 200 last month,” Bonny said. “I see people working two jobs just to make ends meet. The solutions to this problem lie in better pay. Better pay means that business can attract and keep higher quality employees.”

Bonny said the number of people coming into the work force center looking for jobs is relatively low, and the number of businesses looking for employees is relatively high.

“Employers are going to have to pay to get and keep staff. They’re figuring out that’s what they have to do to keep good people,” she said. “A lot of places are offering end-of-year bonuses to entice people to stay and work for the entire season. Right now we encourage employers to pay $9 per hour for entry-level or clerical positions.”

The big picture
County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said affordable living is an issue she deals with daily. Although affordable housing is one area of living in Steamboat, Stahoviak believes it’s the big-picture cost of living that needs to be controlled.

“Affordability overall will be a continued issue. We’re talking about affordable everything, gas, food, housing etc. These things will continue to be issues in every area of the workforce,” Stahoviak said. “We need to be careful how we address this. The “West of Steamboat” plan is so important because it could provide many affordable homes for local workers.”

The city and county’s West of Steamboat plan has been adopted and is driving affordable housing developments just outside of Steamboat’s city limits. Local developers and the Regional Affordable Living Foundation are already working toward constructing new homes in the area. But, Stahoviak said, dealing with housing issues is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Ten years from now, I’m hoping we’ve figured out a way to meet the needs of the existing workforce shortage. We need to be careful about building and adding to the community as long as we have a labor crisis.”

Jim Evans believes that Routt County will fair well with the workforce shortage problem because of its willingness to address the problem.

“The largest variable in the cost of living in Colorado is housing. It’s sad to say but it really will be the mom and pop stores that will suffer in the long run. They can’t afford to build affordable housing for their employees like the ski company has, but hopefully local entities will aid in that burden,” he said. “Relative to other areas, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for Routt County.”

— To reach Bryna Larsen call 871-4205 or e-mail blarsen@amigo.net

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