The hiring game: In a seasonal town, employers and employees have trouble finding, retaining what they need
Special to The Aspen Times
Industries With the Highest Employment Shares, 2016
Industry / Average Employment
Accommodations and Food Services: 4,228
Arts, Entertainment and Recreation: 2,256
Real Estate, Rental and Leasing: 1,329
Retail Trade: 1,311
Public Administration: 1,253
Industry / Average Employment
Accommodations and Food Services: 7,554
Arts, Entertainment and Recreation: 3,795
Retail Trade: 3,524
Administration and Waste Services: 2,135
Industry / Average Employment
Health Care (and Social Assistance): 3,316
Retail Trade: 3,113
Accommodations and Food Services: 3,101
Educational Services: 2,691
Compiled by Ryan Gedney, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment
In Aspen, the saying goes, “You either have three houses or three jobs.”
While this phrase does not hold true for all, it portrays a struggle that employees and their employers have in a mountain town that is defined by its seasons.
For employees, the struggle often comes in finding year-round, full-time jobs that pay well and are career-minded. For employers, there’s a deficit in applicants and, oftentimes, a lack of experience in an already small pool of potential employees.
BY THE NUMBERS
As of September, Colorado was tied for second as the state with the lowest unemployment rate — 2.5 percent. This is much lower than the national average, which currently rests at 4.2 percent. In Pitkin County and surrounding areas, the rate is even lower than the state average. Garfield County is at 2.1 percent, Eagle is at 1.8 and Pitkin is 2.2. If you get down to actual numbers in Pitkin County, that means there are 10,857 people with jobs and 240 without, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
“Colorado, historically, does have a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the nation, but right now, nine years after the recession, Colorado is really standing out,” said Ryan Gedney, an economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Gedney said reasons for the low unemployment rate are Colorado’s diverse industry mix and the fact that young people are seeking out the state as a place to move. The population is youthful and ready to work.
While a low unemployment rate sounds like a good thing, it can often leave employers, from small businesses to county governments, in a difficult situation. This is because a lower unemployment rate often means less people are applying for positions, and the ones who do aren’t necessarily qualified.
FINDING THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB
Pitkin County, which has around 290 full-time and 30 on-call/seasonal employees, has changed many of its employee recruitment techniques in the past year and a half because the old ways of hiring were no longer working, according to Dannette Logan, director of Human Resources and Risk Management.
“What we are seeing in our hiring pool is that our applicants have declined,” Logan said. “The quality of applicants is not the same either.”
Just a few years ago, the county’s technique with hiring was to put ads in the local newspapers. It was enough to gain a good variety of qualified applicants for a position. That’s no longer the case, so the county has widened its reach, advertising in places like Santa Barbara and Marin counties in California and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, to name a few.
“We’ve extended our reach to other places with a similar quality of living,” Logan said.
Along with that strategy, they also advertise in more professional publications and reach out to colleges.
Smaller businesses also see problems with hiring and retaining employees. Ryan Sweeney, the owner of Ryno’s and co-owner of the soon to open Silver City Saloon, said finding good help can be a challenge. He typically has 15 to 20 employees at Ryno’s.
“I think our labor pool is definitely shrinking,” Sweeney said about the workforce in Aspen. “We have turnover and there’s always the issue that someone feels, and rightfully so, that they can always get a job next door. So some people goof off or slack off and they have to be replaced.”
Sara Haneman, the manager of L’Occitane en Provence, typically has four to five employees to keep the shop running. She said that smaller businesses are often at a disadvantage when it comes to finding good hires.
“It’s definitely harder to find quality employees and the turnover is much higher because of the rate of pay. People are willing to pay top dollar because they are so desperate to find employees,” she said. “It’s hard to compete with the salary when you are a small business.”
ON THE JOB HUNT
On the other side of the equation, potential hires often find getting a job to be a challenge, especially if they are searching for full-time, year-round work.
In Pitkin County, seasonal jobs trump year-round opportunities. Although the Department of Labor and Employment doesn’t have exact numbers on which jobs are seasonal or year-round, Gedney estimates — based on the industries in the county — that seasonal jobs could make up 75 to 85 percent of work opportunities. Out of all the industries in the county, leisure and hospitality is by far the biggest, taking up 50 percent of the jobs during the winter months and 45 percent the rest of the year. This category includes everything from hotels and restaurants to ski resorts and other forms of entertainment — most of which close or cut down on staff during the offseasons.
Aspiring Aspenite Chris Ebbert has had a particularly hard time finding a job in his field. He’s a businessman who has an impressive resume, with 25 years of experience. Most recently, he worked for Amazon as a senior manager. He wants to make Aspen his home, but finding any work opportunity that is even remotely in his field is difficult.
“I realize that I could probably be the odd man out to start with,” Ebbert said regarding his resume. “It could also be my approach or where I’m looking, but I’m not getting any nibbles. I get a lot of responses that I’m overqualified or they ask ‘Why would you want to do this?’”
Ebbert isn’t necessarily looking for something on the same pay scale as Amazon. He realizes he may have to sacrifice that to live in a place like Aspen, but he does want some kind of work to keep him mentally stimulated and financially secure. When he searches for jobs online or in the newspapers, he finds plenty of seasonal work and service industry openings.
“I wouldn’t be interested in having a job every six weeks, based on the seasonal needs of the town,” he said. “I know that there are plenty of people doing that, but that’s not what I’m looking for.”
Emmy Garrigus is a recent addition to the valley. Hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, she had always wanted to live in a mountain town and fell in love with Aspen when she visited in August 2016 for a friend’s wedding.
“I decided I was moving here before I even left town,” she said of her visit.
She moved here last December and finding a job came relatively easily. In fact, she found two. Before she even arrived in the valley, she got a job in ticketing with Aspen Skiing Co. and also as a teacher at Pure Barre.
“It’s funny, I had a really easy time,” she said.
Once the winter ended, she continued working for Skico in the summer, doing trail work in Snowmass. However, the offseason was particularly hard for her financially.
“I think there’s so much hype around Aspen that I didn’t really realize it was such a seasonal place,” she said. “The first year with two offseasons has been a challenge. This place is so expensive and I’m always nervous about money.”
Garrigus wants to continue to stay in Aspen, but thinks she will eventually have to get a full-time, year-round job to make that happen. She said finding that could be a challenge of its own.
“I’m definitely nervous about it, but I think I can pull something off at some point,” she said.
An obstacle that is often on potential employees minds is how to make ends meet in Aspen. It’s widely known how expensive the 81611 zip code is; it constantly ranks on Forbes’ list of most expensive places in the country, and it seems to be getting pricier by the year.
A DELICATE BALANCE
Employers know that living in Aspen is expensive and try to make living here easier for their employees.
“For us, we always try to make employees a priority and maximize the pay scale,” said Jeff Hanle, the vice president of communications at Aspen Skiing Co. “That tends to help with employee retention.”
Skico is the largest employer in the valley, with 3,600 employees in the winter and around 800 year-round. The company has a relatively consistent — and successful — employment model, according Hanle, partially because hiring extends to other countries.
With all of the employees, whether they be year-round or seasonal, the company offers benefits and perks to keep them around. Perhaps the most coveted of those is a ski pass. Many employees also receive health insurance, health club discounts, bonuses for end of the season and pay raises each year they return. Another big offering that makes Skico an enticing place to work is its employee housing, which includes about 700 beds throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. Garrigus said that’s one of the main reasons she applied to work at the company, however she was able to find other housing in the end.
In the past few months, Pitkin County has introduced a deed-restricted program to help employees make homeownership possible. Essentially, the county partners with its employer to take an ownership interest in the property. Already, two employees have taken advantage of the program. The county also put in place last year a paid relocation offer, helping compensate new employees with moving expenses and traveling to their new job. A housing stipend for new employees also was introduced.
“We put these programs in place to help new hires come to the valley, because our (hiring) reach has extended,” Logan said.
Smaller businesses like Sweeney’s don’t have the resources to offer housing or health insurance. He tries to pay enough that his employees can afford to take care of those things on their own.
“I try to pay fairly. That’s a big thing, knowing that your employees have to live in an expensive place,” he said.
Sweeney said he believes his technique is working because he’s kept his two managers and head chef since Ryno’s opened in 2012. He and his partner also have received a great deal of interest from locals who want to work at Silver City. He hopes it’s been because of how he treats his staff at Ryno’s.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “If you treat people right, they will stick around.”
No matter the side of the hiring ladder one is on in Aspen, challenges to make ends meet are always present. But one thing is for sure, people are willing to work hard to make living in Aspen a reality, whether it be with three jobs or three houses.
After all, living in paradise isn’t always easy, but it’s well worth it.