Aspen employment: More jobs filled locally than a year ago |

Aspen employment: More jobs filled locally than a year ago

Andre SalvailThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – There was a time in Aspen’s not so distant past – about four to five years ago – when jobs grew on trees and anyone with decent skills and needing employment could drop into town and pluck one.Of course, since the fall of 2008, that’s no longer been the case. Almost three years ago, the Great Recession finally caught up to Pitkin County, one of many communities nationwide that was able to stave off the effects of the worldwide economic downturn for several months.While it’s still an employer’s market, recent data paints a slightly brighter picture for job seekers and the local economy at large.According to the state Department of Labor and Employment, the county’s jobless rate was 7.9 percent in June, the start of the summer tourism season. Of 10,782 people in the local labor force, 9,933 had jobs, a significant improvement over the same month last year when the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent and about 500 fewer people were employed in the county.Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass and an observer of trends in the local tourism and hospitality economy, said employers are no longer desperate to find qualified workers. And conversely, “Employment seekers don’t seem nearly as desperate as they appeared last year and the year prior,” he said.Tomcich said that while the recession didn’t do anyone any favors, there was a sliver lining in the dark economic cloud: “The quality of the applicants that seem to be available for jobs that are out there is much higher than it was prior to the recession,” he said. “It’s a good thing for the hotels and local employers because they’re getting higher quality workers.”The area economy was humming along so well five years ago, Tomcich joked, that the employer mentality in 2006 and 2007 was such: “Hire anyone who can come into the door, who already has housing.” Employers were desperate to fill open positions, and there was little in the way of affordable housing to offer and entice job seekers, he said.Back then, the county employment rate during the winter tourism season hovered between 2 percent and 3 percent. Compare that with January to March 2011 period, when the rate each month held steady, slightly above 6 percent. Because of the dependence of the Aspen economy on tourism, there are wild fluctuations in the jobless rate between the busy seasons and the offseasons, when the rate can rise into the double digits because of people who deal with temporary layoffs and the need for state assistance.Looking at the state labor department’s statistics on the annual labor force, it appears 2010 might have been the peak in terms of unemployment, barring anything unforeseen in the near-term economy. Overall, counting busy tourism seasons and what’s known locally as “shoulder months,” the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent last year, climbing from 3.3 percent and 6.8 percent in 2008 and 2009, respectively.The best unemployment rate of the last 10 years was 2.7 percent in 2007, a feat that also happened in 2000.Erik Klanderud, director of member services for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said his organization’s annual survey of members suggests optimism for the near future on behalf of employers across the valley. According to sentiments gauged early this year, a significant percentage of employers expected “improved business performance” for the next 12 months, and that percentage represented a large increase compared with the feelings of business owners and managers a year ago.”There’s two things going on,” Klanderud said. “One is, there are new businesses opening up – it’s easy to see when you walk around the downtown area. Last year, there were 20-plus vacancies for storefront vacancies in the commercial core.”Now it’s dropped down in the teens, and talking to people in the real estate market, they expect by the fall going into winter the occupancy for storefronts available will be single-digit.”Also, Klanderud said, there is a surge in hiring, with many employers and job seekers alike calling the chamber in an effort to find qualified workers and openings.The request for the chamber’s relocation packets has climbed 150 percent over the last two months, he said.”That’s big,” Klanderud said. “We’re starting to see more interest in people either moving here [for jobs], or moving and locating a business here.”Klanderud said he also oversees ACRA’s visitor centers, and interest in Aspen and its activities are tracking much higher this year. The chamber’s guest pavilion near the corner of Cooper Avenue and South Galena Street had more than 1,800 face-to-face contacts over a three-day period, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., over the long July Fourth weekend. “That’s the highest I’ve ever seen,” he said.Klanderud added that he talks to business owners and managers regularly, and gets a sense that sales are up over last year, although the increase varies from single-digit percent increases to the low teens, depending on the source. Some businesses have closed for good in recent months, but the reasons behind that can point to factors other than the local economy, he said.A quick search of available jobs in Aspen on the state’s job-seeker website last week revealed that about 25 service-industry positions ranging from hotel clerks to serving to housekeeping positions, jobs that range widely in terms of wages.Sally Spaulding, spokeswoman for The Little Nell Hotel & Residences, said that in the aftermath of the recession, the Aspen Skiing Co. property altered its hiring approach, emphasizing local domestic applicants over international job seekers.Under current economic conditions, The Little Nell, one of the top 25 employers in the county in terms of its workforce size, has no problem finding highly qualified workers, she said.”At one time we had a far higher number of international employees,” she said. “We are continuing our focus of first hiring locally, then domestically and internationally.”Also, Spaulding said, the application flow is no longer seasonal. “We are having people apply 365 days a year,” she