Glenwood’s wintertime hiring presents some advantages amid ski season labor crunch
Fewer seasonal fluctuations and worker loyalty are two big things Glenwood Springs seems to have in its favor when it comes to hiring and retaining staff through the winter months.
While Glenwood-based resort and hospitality businesses are affected by hiring competition in Aspen — especially during the ramp-up to the winter ski season — there are some trade-offs that can make down-valley jobs more attractive.
And, there’s a growing push to build partnerships between Roaring Fork Valley tourist businesses to keep workers employed year-round through the usual seasonal fluctuations, according to Christian Henney, general manager at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.
“I see a great opportunity for more seasonal, part-time employees to be able to work here in the summer and up-valley in the winter,” Henney said. “I’d love to develop some more partnerships to provide that opportunity.”
Tom Hays, general manager at Sunlight Mountain Resort, acknowledged that the allure of a world-class resort and higher wages is a big draw for some workers.
But Sunlight, and Glenwood Springs hospitality businesses in general, have some unique advantages, he said.
“Being in the same business as Aspen SkiCo, sure, we are competing somewhat for the same labor pool,” Hays said. “But a lot of things factor into people deciding to go up-valley or stay down here for a winter job.”
One is the proximity to where most of the workers live. There’s also the shorter commute to and from work to consider, he said.
Another is that people enjoy working for a smaller company, and some are able to piece together year-round employment by working a ski job in the winter and a landscaping or maybe a raft guide job in the shoulder seasons and summer months, Hays said.
“We haven’t had as much problem hiring seasonal staff this year as what, quite frankly, we expected to have,” he said. “
Between lift operators, instructors, ski patrollers, food service workers and other support staff, Sunlight employs between 250-280 people through the ski season. About 70 to 80 of those are full-time positions, according to Hays.
A lot of those are return employees from year to year, he said. Sunlight does see some turnover come mid-January typically, but retention of key employees has been a strength of the organization, Hays added.
“Transportation is a big factor,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t want to spend an extra couple of hours on the highway.”
And, while Aspen relies on J-1 visa workers, Sunlight has for the most part been able to maintain a local employee base, Hays said.
“Ever since the recession (in the late 2000s), we stopped hiring any international workers … because there’s enough of a labor pool for our needs here,” he said.
Industry-wide, finding enough ski resort workers during the high season is always difficult, according to Chris Linsmayer, public affairs manager for Colorado Ski Country USA.
“Hiring is always a challenge in the ski industry as the ski area counties have unemployment rates hovering around or below 2 percent,” Linsmayer said. “On the whole, ski areas are doing their best to fill positions, but it’s challenging.
The Roaring Fork Valley region is uniquely positioned, according to Carolyn Tucker, regional business service representative for the Colorado Workforce Center office in Glenwood Springs.
While the U.S. unemployment rate sits at about 3.6% (as of October), Colorado’s unemployment rate is 2.6% and Garfield County’s is 2.3%, according to U.S. and state labor statistics.
“We are in a labor shed where we share labor throughout the region between Eagle, Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa counties,” Tucker said. “The whole region kind of flows, depending on where people live.”
Aspen/Pitkin County imports about 60% of its workforce, primarily from Garfield County and the small sliver of Eagle County in the Basalt/El Jebel area, she noted.
Tucker also concurred with Henney that there is more human resource sharing between the ski resorts and what are traditionally more summer and year-round tourism markets.
“It’s a strategy that works well for some types of businesses, because you can create a culture where you don’t have expensive turnover,” Tucker said.
Henney said the Hotel Colorado doesn’t tend to lose many employees in the winter to Aspen-area jobs, even though it’s a slower time of year for the historic Glenwood Springs hotel.
“Our occupancy is much stronger in the summer, where we’re booked virtually week in, week out and have a busier restaurant business with the outdoor seating area,” he said.
Still, the hotel only drops from about 100 employees during the summer months to 88 currently, Henney said.
Rick DuFon is general manager of the Pullman restaurant on Seventh Street. His and many other restaurants are able to retain a consistent staff of loyal front-of-house employees, he said.
But the kitchen jobs are where there tends to be more turnover, especially when Aspen restaurants staff up for the ski season, DuFon said.
“It’s relatively easy to find servers, and the down-valley restaurants are far more constant seasonally,” he said, noting that some ski resort restaurants will close for long periods of time after the winter season is over.
“The back of house is a different problem altogether,” DuFon said. “The constant rate of pay increase for up-valley restaurants to get qualified staff makes it impossible for us to compete this time of year … where the front of house stays fairly loyal.”
The Pullman does close on Sunday nights, partly because of being short-staffed but also because it’s a slow night in general, he said.
“But that’s good for the remainder of the restaurants that are open that night,” DuFon said.
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