by Meg Soyars
Grand County businesses are facing a crisis reflected across most of the country, finding a stable workforce. According to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, small business owners reported 48% unfilled positions in May, more than double those businesses’ pre-pandemic unfilled positions.
Causes of the Labor Shortage
Locally, small businesses and blue-collar industries have been hard hit, especially in trucking and construction. Husband and wife team Shelby Garrett and Lihla Clancy have experienced these labor shortages first-hand.
“We can’t even find unskilled workers this summer,” said Clancy. She and her husband run S&L trucking, a Granby-based company that transports aggregate materials to construction sites or home-building projects. Garrett is also the general manager of Indian Peaks Rental. The company supplies man lifts, lifting equipment, and earth-moving equipment to Grand County. “We support a large customer base and are an essential asset to our contractors and homeowners,” Garrett said. “Because without us here, there’s not access to this kind of equipment.”
But without employees, Indian Peaks can’t be here, either. “Everybody in the County is in the same boatas us as far as help
is concerned,” Garrett said. “Our workload is endless, yet there’s no workforce. It’s the perfect storm.” In addition to construction industries like Indian Peaks, restaurants are also in the eye of this “perfect storm.” Jon Harvey, the owner of two local restaurants, has been searching for employees since Covid-19 crushed the economy. “Before the pandemic, we had 32 employees,” Harvey recalls of his two restaurants, The Dean West and The Dean Public House. “Then I went down to five when we had to shut down.”
Garrett and Clancy explained that several factors are at play with Grand County’s labor shortage. First, the attitude towards labor-intensive industries. “Society doesn’t promote blue-collar work; as soon as kids leave high school, they push them to go to college or do other things,” Clancy explained. She added that blue-collar work pays significantly more in the high country than other jobs, and people can make a great living doing it while also advancing through the company as they gain more skills. “Even if this isn’t your permanent career, it’s a stepping stone that can lead to something else,” Clancy said. Although society doesn’t always see the value in blue-collar work, the pandemic revealed exactly how necessary that industry is in our modern way of life.
But no matter how essential a business may be to the local economy, workers won’t stay if they can’t afford to live here. Lack of housing in Grand is another major concern.
The Affordable Housing Crisis
“The housing shortage is a serious issue. I also work in real estate, so I can see the cost of homes here isn’t attainable for people,” Clancy said. She added that S&L Trucking’s primary driver is struggling to find a permanent place to live because his financial history isn’t long enough to get approved for a mortgage. “Even though he works over 40 hours a week, he still can’t find housing,” she explained.
Garrett explained that he’s only been able to retain his current employees at Indian Peaks because they all have stable housing. “We have a couple of guys who already own houses. It was luck, I would say, they found these houses they could afford. Without some kind of help, it’s impossible,” Garrett remarked. “Kremmling used to be affordable, but I see homes in town that used to be 180k, now for over 350k. Who can afford a $400,000 house?” A search on realtor.com currently reveals only one single-family home under $350k for sale in Grand County.
Harvey at The Dean West is in the same boat as Garrett and Clancy. “Housing is a huge hurdle for us; we’ve already had a couple of employees leave because of it,” Harvey stated. When he had to lay off employees during the pandemic, many of them left the county because it was too expensive to stay.
“You can’t find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,200,” he said. “A lot of second-home owners have all this housing, but don’t offer it when they’re not here.”
Second-home owners buy up property here to escape the stress of the city. People also come to Grand County to enjoy the outdoors and experience life in the mountains.
“Without all the people wanting to live here, we wouldn’t have all this money. Tourism powers our economy, but it also makes it hard to have a life here,” Garrett remarked. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
As a resort community, the County has a unique labor market. “People want to play outside and have fun in the summer out here,” Clancy explained. “But summer is when all the work happens. People decide to move after they’ve vacationed here, but not always to work.”
She added that the blame doesn’t lie solely on people who move to Grand with the dream of leisure in the mountains. The issue also
lies with employers who are more concerned with their bottom line than their staff. “We understand how hard it is to work endlessly and not get ahead. For the people who move here, [employers] need to pay them a living wage,” Clancy stated.
Although the “Fight for Fifteen” has lost the legislative battle in Washington, some local business owners like Clancy are working to keep their wages competitive.
How Businesses are Bringing Staff Back “Even though it cuts into our bottom line, we still raise wages. We make a concerted effort to help people move up,” Clancy stated.
“We’re locals here; people have helped us be here, so we want to help people, too. If [employees] are doing well, we think they
should be rewarded for that.”
Harvey feels the same way. “If McDonald’s is paying $16 an hour for a high schooler’s job, it’s hard to hire the high schoolers here,” he said. “So I’ve raised all wages across the board $2 or $3 an hour. That’s the only way I can retain employees.” On the bright side, Harvey remarked he’s finding new employees since his wage increase. “We’re getting kids who really want the opportunity to learn,” he said.
“Here, you can learn how to cook and gain a skill set that will further you in life.” Harvey also makes sure to cross-train his employees so they know the ins and outs of running a restaurant. “They feel like they can take this life skill anywhere,” he continued. “If you can cook or serve, you can always find a job.”
Another added benefit to working for Harvey is that he promotes from within. “Some of my dishwashers are now line cooks learning to manage,” he said. Harvey is also closely training one high school graduate, who has dreams of opening his own restaurant.
As for Indian Peaks Rental, Garrett offers a monthly bonus program and makes sure to keep his staff busy through the slow winter months because he knows he will need them in the summer.
“We’re doing all we can to retain employees; workplace culture is a lot of it, too. Money talks, but you have to create a place someone wants to be, or turn-over will be high,” Garrett said. “We try to cater to what [employees] want in the workplace. Their input is valuable, so we listen, and they know we care.”
Clancy and Garrett are also working with a driving school, Excel Driver Services, to help train potential staff. Clancy added that job training for trucking isn’t as daunting as may seem, and employees can get their CDL within 3 weeks.
Last but not least, Indian Peaks Rental and The Dean Public House offer employee housing! Harveyoffers six private rooms and a shared kitchen for his staff above the restaurant. This helps offset someemployees’ need for housing. There are 28 staff members between both his restaurants, so he can’t help everyone, but it’s a step forward. Indian Peaks also has one apartment on-site for their employee housing.
Good News on the Horizon
Although the “perfect storm” that Garrett spoke of has culminated in Colorado, there are some sunny spots on the horizon. Garrett reported that after 3-4 straight months of no applications, he’s just hired two new team members.
“Now that the pandemic is winding down, maybe people are feeling safer about coming back to work, so hopefully the trend continues,” Garrett said. Businesses have now reopened without restrictions and more people are becoming vaccinated. On a national level, weekly unemployment claims have now dropped below 400,000. Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard also predicts that the labor shortage will fade in the fall as the economy continues to return to normal.
Harvey added that he’s also starting to receive more resumes now that summer is in full swing and more people are job-hunting. “Four or five months ago, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to work. But now we’re getting an influx.” This allowed Harvey to reopen his Hot Sulphur location, The Dean Public House, in May. Many employees left during the restaurant’s year-long closure, but a few have now returned, joining forces with some brand new hires.
In Grand County, business owners’ battle against the labor shortage is a long one but not impossible to win. Locally-owned companies—like S&L Trucking, Indian Peaks Rental, The Dean West, and The Dean Public House—are the backbone of our community. These businesses can only thrive if employees, employers, and housing developers support each other. Together, they can make Grand County both an affordable place to live and a great place to work!