County faces labor crunch
November 2, 2006
The Pitkin County public works department is struggling to fill positions for the winter. Local officials worry that snowplowing and road maintenance crews won’t be able to fulfill county needs without more hires.”There is a general labor shortage countywide,” said Brian Pettet, director of public works for the county. Shortages on his staff are acute. “If a person holds a CDL [Commercial Drivers License], they can go anywhere and find a job.””We’re in a situation that if a large storm hits, some areas of Pitkin County will not get the service they’ve seen in the past,” he said. “We have to take care of the roads that carry the most people first.”Brush Creek Road, for example, will receive attention before Thompson Creek or more rural routes, he said. State plows take care of Highway 82, but county vehicles often help out.”We will do the best we can and use contractors when we have to,” he said.A staff of 52 employees maintain county roads and facilities. Pettet said he not only is having a hard time attracting skilled people to fill vacant positions, but also is having difficulties keeping the staff he has.The road and bridge department operates at 70 percent of employees needed, Pettet said, and the county now subcontracts services like vehicle maintenance – putting snow-tires on 150 county vehicles, for example. Construction mechanics and heavy equipment operators, Pettet said, are in the highest demand. In fact, he’s had ads in the local papers looking for a mechanic for months and has not had any applications. The county offers attractive salary and benefits, Pettet said, but still can’t fill the staff. They’ve even sent brochures to employment agencies and sent representatives to job fairs in other states.”The commute is the problem,” Pettet said. “It is a lifestyle issue.”More than 70 percent of county workers commute from west of the Conoco station, he said, and many are lured away from the daily commute to Aspen by jobs farther downvalley, particularly in the oil and gas industry.Headhunters from other industries have even offered jobs to county workers on the job, especially to workers with experience, he said.One of Pettet’s mechanics recently took a downvalley job at 27 cents less per hour.The pay cut, however, is worth up to three more hours with the family every day.There has been an opening for a county engineer for months, and despite intensive recruiting, the position is still open. Trained operators and engineers are hard to find nationwide, Pettet said, but the challenges of living in high-rent Pitkin County make it even harder to attract qualified people, especially people with families.”We’ve resorted to taking on people on seasonal basis,” Pettet said. It’s something the county has not done in the past.”I think Pitkin County is a great place to work and that it’s worth it to make that commute,” he added..”We have not been able to meet the level of service expectations we have in the past because we haven’t had a full complement of staff,” Pettet said. “We’re trying to meet those service levels, but without the employees we can’t.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.