Routt County’s problem finding workers to fill low-wage service jobs will survive pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Before the pandemic, Routt County was seeing more open positions in the service industry than unemployed people to fill the jobs. But in April 2020, unemployment in the county rose to over 18% as stay-at-home orders shuttered many restaurants and other service-based businesses.
With unemployment numbers now returning to normal — it was 5% in February — finding someone to work a low-wage job is difficult once again.
“The numbers have shifted a little bit, but we have many employers that are struggling to find help,” said Jessica Valand, regional director for workforce development at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
This problem will persist after the pandemic because, generally, wages for service industry jobs in Routt County are too low to support a single person. The pandemic may even make the problem worse as people flock to the Yampa Valley, driving up one of the highest costs of living in the state while increasing demand in restaurants and personal services.
The average wage in the county was considerably lower, at $24 an hour, than Colorado as a whole, where the wage was about $31 an hour in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Valand said this isn’t surprising as economies like Steamboat, which have a lot of service sector jobs, have job markets that offer more low-wage jobs.
Of about 600 job postings in the county in May, 98% did not require any prior education level, which Valand said was “shocking.” About 97% of the postings only asked for one to two years of experience.
“These are the types of jobs that we have, they are the types of jobs employers are struggling to fill,” Valand said. “This is a real mismatch with our demographic profile. We have a very highly educated population.”
Over half of the population in Routt County has at least a bachelor’s degree, and just 3% of residents don’t have a high school diploma, according to the Colorado Workforce Center.
“We have always had that situation here where you may be sitting at a table and the person that’s waiting on you has a master’s,” Routt County Commissioner Tim Redmond said. “What we are looking at is a growing industry that is not going to have a workforce, and you can’t import people because they can’t afford to live in this valley.”
The Steamboat Springs School District had the fourth highest cost of living of school districts in Colorado in 2019, Valand said, similar to many other ski resort communities. The South Routt and Hayden school districts are both above the state’s average cost of living, as well, according to Valand.
Workforce housing has always been a challenge locally, Valand said, but a recent influx of location-neutral workers and others who migrated to Steamboat during the pandemic “seems to have poured gasoline on what was already a raging fire when it comes to housing concerns.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed prior to the pandemic that this would happen, but we have gone from dire to extreme as far as housing is concerned,” Valand said.
To bring the problem full circle, the influx of location-neutral workers has increased the demand for service industry workers.
“More people want to go out to eat, more people are seeking out services in the community, which is ostensibly great, but if you can’t find employees to work in those positions, it is kind of exacerbating the problem,” Valand said.
When it is so hard to find people to work these jobs, there are real downstream effects on the community. Valand pointed to the city of Steamboat’s summer camp program, which filled up in 30 seconds in part because the city had difficulty finding camp counselors who could afford to live locally.
“That also impacts the ability of people to be able to go to work because of care of children and other things,” Valand said. “There are ripple effects to this that really pop up everywhere in the labor market.”
Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton suggested one solution could be through transportation, potentially making it easier and more cost effective for people to live outside Steamboat and commute in for work. Redmond agreed but also suggested the county try to invest in public-private partnerships to grow the affordable housing stock.
Valand said both are likely needed, and the community needs to realize that if the tourism sector is going to grow further, then things like housing and transportation should be addressed.
Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said they would have several opportunities in the coming months to address economic development, and taking a more intentional role in that development is important to address workforce issues.
“The ability for people to work and support their families is something that we should be focused on, and I think without this kind of intentional focus on economic development, again, we see the writing on the wall about where we are headed,” Melton said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.