Routt County’s low unemployment rate means opportunities for workers, challenges for businesses |

Routt County’s low unemployment rate means opportunities for workers, challenges for businesses

Before the pandemic, mountain towns like Steamboat Springs were looking for employees to fill open spots with an unemployment rate of around 1.7%. In April, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment estimated that 2,813 people had filed for the county's unemployment rate at 17.7%
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County’s December unemployment rate was one of the lowest in the state of Colorado at 1.7%, and while it was good news for employees, low unemployment can present challenges for business owners and the economy, according to local economic experts.

“I feel like it means that anybody on the sidelines has probably been pulled in,” said Christina Oxley, regional business services coordinator for the Colorado Workforce Center. “But I can’t see really anything to celebrate. If you look from an economist’s perspective, a strong economy has an unemployment rate that ranges between 3.5% and 4.5%. That allows the opportunity for the workforce to have some mobility, but it also gives employers some choice so that they can choose maybe the best skills to fit what they need.

“In the big picture, productivity is better when you’ve got more choices,” Oxley added.

Facing the challenge

In Steamboat Springs, low unemployment numbers and a tight labor market are just a fact of life in the hospitality business.

“Without a doubt, one of our toughest challenges in this community is a lack of employees,” said Resort Group President Mark Walker. “At Resort Group, where we have upwards of, you know, 325 employees, we’re always running a little bit short, and we’re always having a need to fill positions.”

Walker said at the peak of the season he has between 325 and 350 employees on his payroll. That number includes more than 165 year-round employees.

He said the limited pool of employees in Routt County often means Resort Group has to bring in employees from neighboring towns and counties. The company also utilizes H-2B visas to bring in seasonal workers from outside the country.

“It’s a challenge. We go after the seasonal people differently than we go after the full-time, year-round people,” Walker said. “We have a campaign that we use locally, and we have a campaign that we use outside of our zip code. But we are also very strategic in our search for full-time, year-round employees.”

Devon Olson chats with a customer at Creekside Cafe & Grill. Routt County’s low unemployment rate of 1.7 % offers employees in Steamboat Springs and across Northern Colorado, more pay and more opportunities as employers compete for quality employees in a shrinking labor market.
John F. Russell

In order to recruit and retain employees, Walker said Resort Group does its best to promote a strong culture within the company.

“Pay is always a factor, but the culture and our employees’ work environment are also important,” Walker said. “We’re always, as a senior management team, looking at those things because they make a difference.”

Walker said Resort Group uses a number of tools to attract employees including competitive pay and subsidized housing. He said recruitment is also impacted by chances for advancement and a safe and comfortable work environment.

“Word of mouth out there in the community makes a difference,” Walker said. “We want to make sure we have a strong reputation as a great place to work, and that helps us draw and keep valued employees.”

Serving up culture

Rex Brice, who owns Rex’s Family of Restaurants, said he pays very little attention to the unemployment numbers published by the Colorado Department of labor, but that doesn’t mean he can escape the impact of low unemployment.

“Well, it’s a real number; we feel it, and it makes things tough,” Brice said. “It means that people can pick and choose where they want to work, and it makes you realize that if you don’t take care of people, then they’re not going to stick around.”

Brice said he employs about 300 people at his seven restaurants in Steamboat and finding help is an ongoing issue.

“We are always hiring,” Brice said. “Staffing in the restaurant industry is a challenge when unemployment is low, or high. So we know that when times are good, it’s going to be tougher to find good people.”

Brice said part of attracting good people includes competitive pay, and he also offers benefits — not because he can get more people to apply, but because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

“We have a schedule of programs and benefits that we’ve been adding over the past few years,” Brice said. “We are doing that because it’s important to us, and as the strength of the company improves, that allows us to continue to add benefits for people.”

Those benefits include health insurance, paid time off and other things that are rare in the restaurant business. Brice also believes in rewarding employees with opportunities to move up the ladder.

He also celebrates low unemployment rates as a sign of a strong economy.

“It creates opportunities for people,” Brice said. “People are getting raises and extra benefits, and the workforce really benefits from a good economy.”

Clearing the sidelines

December’s unemployment rate of 1.7% means roughly 299 people in Routt County are unemployed out of a labor pool with 17,442 eligible workers. That number is down slightly from 2.1% in November 2019 and 2.0% in October 2019, and up slightly from the low of 1.6% in September of last year.

“There’s kind of two sides to it when you’re looking at unemployment — there’s the unemployment rate, but there’s also the labor force participation rate,” said John Bristol, director of economic development with the Steamboat Springs Chamber.

The labor force participation rate measures the number of people who are actively looking for a job in Routt County but doesn’t take into account those who are actively looking for a job for whatever reason. As the unemployment rate drops, Bristol said demand for quality employees grows, which means many people put themselves back into the labor market. This allows employers to find quality employees for awhile.

“We’ve seen a lot of people are coming off the sidelines, and they’re looking for work,” Bristol said. “That’s why we’ve had a low unemployment rate but have still been filling a lot of the jobs. But that can’t go on forever. Eventually, we will get to the point where we are at the bottom of the barrel, and there are no folks left on the sidelines.”

That’s when businesses will begin to feel the pressure, Bristol said.

Dealing with the pressure

“Businesses have to start looking and assessing themselves to see where they’re at because they’re not able to find the right talent,” Bristol said. “They start having to be a little bit more creative, and that manifests itself in a couple of ways. First and foremost, they have to start increasing their pay to really compete for talent, and then, they often have to turn to other more creative ways, including scheduling and flexibility and other benefits that they may provide.”

In some cases, employers may start reaching out to job fairs, including fairs in other communities, to find employees. Other times, the business may make changes internally to create more efficiencies, and that’s when businesses turn to automation and other investments in technology that increase productivity and allow operations to go on with fewer employees.

While Routt County’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state, it is in line with other resort communities including Summit at 1.4%, Lake at 1.6% and Eagle, Grand and Jackson at 1.8%. In Northwest Colorado, Rio Blanco has the highest unemployment rate at 3.2%, followed by Moffat County at 3.1% and Garfield at 2.5%.

“I think the unemployment rate in Colorado is at 2.5%, and that’s the lowest on record since they started tracking that rate in the early 1970s,” Bristol said. “That will put pressure on business owners to really look at their business model and how they allocate their resources.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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