State: Although everyone is looking for help, Aspen-area workforce is largest ever

Labor department rep outlines crisis at chambers of commerce meeting

Jessica Valand of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment shares information Tuesday about the Roaring Fork Valley region's largest workforce ever.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Employers in the Roaring Fork Valley might find it hard to believe, but the regional workforce is the biggest it’s ever been, Jessica Valand of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment told members of local chambers of commerce Tuesday.

The problem, she said, is that job creation is outpacing growth of the labor force in the superheated economy.

“You have more jobs than you’ve ever had,” said Valand, director of the Northwest Colorado Workforce Area. She lives in Steamboat Springs, so she is well versed in mountain resort areas.

“It doesn’t seem like there are enough people to do the jobs,” Valand acknowledged. “But actually, just in terms of raw headcount, you have a larger labor force over the past few months than you have ever had. We’ve looked at this data looking back 30 years.”

The data counts workers, not jobholders. In other words, if a person holds three jobs, they are counted as just one worker, so the numbers aren’t inflated, Valand said.

The chambers of commerce in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, Aspen and the Colorado River Valley hosted a combined meeting for members with featured presentations by Valand and Colorado Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Loren Furman, who discussed the 2022 legislative session and the state’s business climate.

Valand’s presentation featured a slide that showed the total labor force for Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties was above 85,000 at the start of this year, well above the boom years of 2015-19.

After the meeting, she told The Aspen Times that the scarcity of workers and the largest workforce aren’t mutually exclusive conditions. She said she realizes many businesses in the area are struggling like never before to fill their ranks. Nevertheless, there are also more jobs than ever to fill.

The problem isn’t isolated to mountain resorts. Most areas of the country are suffering from the same condition. The population is growing older, and the birthrate is declining.

“This is a national picture,” she said. “This is happening everywhere. So when people are saying there are ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere, there is no one available, I often hear people say nobody wants to work. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Among the factors is retirement of the oldest baby boomers. Many of them delayed retirement because of the Great Recession, but they dropped out during the pandemic. In addition, 2 million women who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic haven’t returned.

The low birth rate in the U.S. has also resulted in fewer available workers. By 2028, the deficit is expected to be 6 million.

The participation rate in the workforce has also dropped steadily since peaking in 2000, Valand said. The number of eligible workers ages 16 and older peaked at 67%. It is now about 62%, she said.

Some economists use the word “sansdemic” to describe the situation. “A sansdemic is basically there aren’t enough people out there to do the work that needs to be done,” she said.

In areas with a high cost of living, such as the Roaring Fork Valley, people tend to stay in the workforce longer, Valand said. Nevertheless, she anticipates workforce challenges to become more acute in the Roaring Fork region. Housing sales prices and rents are soaring in the region. Places that used to be bedroom communities supplying workers for resorts such as Aspen and Snowmass Village are now too steep for workers.

“As housing gets more expensive and inventory gets tighter, we’re going to continue to see a real challenge here,” Valand said. “You have long had this influx of workers from all the way down into Parachute and really great public transportation compared to other mountain communities, so you’ve been able to import some workers. But these demographic trends are affecting the entire (region) from Aspen down to Parachute, so the ability to bring in your workforce to your more affluent communities is going to get harder and harder over time.”

The picture isn’t “super encouraging,” Valand told the chamber audience.

“The big takeaway here is don’t assume there’s any (prospect) of a return to normal on our horizon. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that.”