Housing perks help in meeting labor needs | PostIndependent.com

Housing perks help in meeting labor needs

Visitors load onto the bus before heading out for a day on the Colorado River with the Glenwood Adventure Co. in mid-August.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Garfield County workers are enjoying the typically low unemployment rate that accompanies the busy summer tourist season, while employers are finding new and unique ways to hang onto workers in Glenwood Springs’ ever-challenging labor market.

The countywide unemployment rate for the region stretching from Carbondale to Parachute, was at 2.7 percent as of July, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by YCharts.com.

That’s down slightly from 2.8 percent in June, and slightly higher than the 2.6 percent unemployment rate recorded in July 2017.

It’s also somewhat lower than the long-term average of 4.97 percent for Garfield County, and significantly lower than the six-year high of 6.9 percent recorded in January 2014.

The yearly trend shows more Garfield County residents are unemployed during the first quarter of the year. But once the summer tourist season hits and the ski slopes open for the holidays, the options to find work are more bountiful.

Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Co., has managed to capitalize on the seasonal transition of workers from nearby ski areas to the many summer jobs his business has to offer in the outdoor recreation industry.

“Ten years ago these were fun summer jobs for college students, but now the average age of our guides is 27, if not older,” Murphy said. “We have a lot more professional outdoor recreation men and women, who work as ski patrollers or instructors in the winter, and then come work for us as guides in the summer.”

Glenwood Adventure Co. offers a variety of guided outdoor activities, from rafting, bicycle tours, fishing, horseback riding and paragliding to off-road ATV tours and both in-town and off-road Segway tours

Murphy said retention of the company’s roughly 60 seasonal staff in Glenwood Springs, plus those at other locations around the state, is one of the biggest challenges.

“So we do what we can to get our staff to come back every year,” he said. “We’re constantly paying attention to the different kinds of benefits we can offer.”

One of those benefits is to ease the housing crunch that can be one of the biggest obstacles for workers in the Roaring Fork Valley, with its high cost of living. Murphy’s company will cover an employee’s security deposit and first-month’s rent, and also has a couple of employee housing units of its own.

“Hiring local is always our key, and then we fill in behind with folks from out of state,” he said.

enticing school workers

The Roaring Fork School District struggles to fill positions every year in the lead-up to the new school year in late August.

Recruiting teachers is its own special challenge, and the district has made some headway on the retention front with its own staff housing program that was part of a taxpayer-supported bond issue three years ago.

“My attention is focused on keeping them here, so we don’t have the two- to five-year bounce we often see,” said Nate Adams, chief recruiter for the school district that includes Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt schools.

The more difficult positions to fill are the non-certified jobs such as bus drivers, mechanics, custodial and building maintenance staff and food service workers, but some professional teaching positions are also a challenge, Adams said.

“The valley is an amazing place, and we have a lot of great teachers, but the reality is you can make more money running a ski lift than helping a special education student learn to read,” he said.

There’s competition for bus drivers and trained mechanics from the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which runs the valleywide bus system, Adams also noted.

And HVAC system technicians can make far more in the private sector than they can with the school district, “even with government benefits,” he said.

The school district has addressed the situation by offering to combine certain types of part-time positions, as schedules allow, and creating a full-time job with benefits, adds Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein.

“We have to be competitive in the local market and pay people well to get them to stay,” Stein said.

If an employee can double up and be a bus driver in the morning and work in the cafeteria at lunch time, or maybe even pick up custodial work later in the day, that’s an option the district is willing to consider, he said.

The district’s new teacher/staff housing program will provide 61 rental units based on income and spread across each of the three district communities, which will help with retention of teachers in particular, Stein said.

But there are other aspects to the cost of living that continue to make it difficult to keep good teachers and other employees, he said.

Colorado Mountain College has begun offering four-year teacher certification degrees, with the idea of growing teachers locally. That’s a “huge benefit,” Stein said, but doesn’t come close to meeting the district’s greater need.

It’s a resource, though, that has allowed the district to hire what are referred to as “alternative-licensure” teachers — those who have received some degree of training, but aren’t quite completely certified. Increasingly, school districts are hiring teachers who still require some development, with the promise of providing that coursework and professional development along the way, Stein explained.

HOSPITAL JOBS ATTRACTIVE

One of Glenwood Springs biggest employers, Valley View Hospital, has been successful in attracting a large number of applicants for most positions, said Daniel Biggs, head of human resources for the hospital.

But, as with most employers, retention is often the challenge, he said.

“We do have a fair number of applicants for many of the positions we post, and especially from within the community,” Biggs said. “Turnover is a common challenge, especially with the economy as good as it is. It is an employee’s market, and there are more choices.”

But Valley View is also careful to be deliberate in making the right hiring decisions, he added.

“There is some lag in filling certain positions because we want to make sure we get the right person,” he said. “We find we’re still able to be deliberate and careful in our hiring decisions.”