The forecast for the summer hiring season is partly sunny
BY WOOD RIVER WEEKLY STAFF
They are as ubiquitous as the spring wildflowers (finally) popping up all over the Wood River Valley: signs in local business windows broadcasting “Help Wanted,” “Join the Team,” and “Now Hiring.” Despite the changeable spring weather, summer is coming and it’s coming fast. And Sun Valley summers mean thousands of visitors looking for places to eat, shop and recreate. Summers mean a boon in construction, roadwork and landscaping. Local businesses are gearing up for what promises to be a busy, and challenging, season. From nonprofits to coffee shops, outfitters to hotels, the push is on to fill jobs.
According to Harry Griffith, executive director for Sun Valley Economic Development, the employment landscape has certainly changed in the past few years when businesses struggled to respond to the changes the response to Covid-19 brought to the Valley, but it is normalizing. “The workforce participation rate has climbed from low of immediate post-Covid from about 62 or 63 percent, to presently around 66 percent,” Griffith said. “A more historical number is 68 percent. During the pandemic, people dropped out of the workforce and haven’t felt the need to rejoin it.”
Although the Wood River Valley has experienced a large influx of residents in recent years, Griffith said, “A lot of our population increase is retirees, not workforce participants. During the pandemic, about 1,500 new people came into town. The bulk of those new residents are over 61 years old and have got an adjusted gross income of more than $300,000. They are most likely not joining the workforce in a meaningful way. Conversely, we also lost people during this time. According to data from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Valley has lost 600 driver’s license registrants. The IRS adjusted gross income of the people leaving is $85,000 a year. That is a big loss of people in the workforce.”
However, with a look ahead, Griffith cites that summer 2023 should be the first ‘normal’ summer we have had in a while, down from the record number of visitors and residents reported in the past two years. This, in addition to the fact that many local businesses have already shown tremendous adaptability and resiliency in response to staffing shortages and greater demand, should make the summer season smoother. He explained, “Over the past few years, many businesses adjusted to manage fewer employees. Restaurants may have cut back on hours, closed certain days, or will be offering smaller menus. We haven’t heard much about people not getting enough lifeguards or camp counselors and that may be because many organizations have limited access to their programs.” Unlike in the past, people who want to sign up for summer programs or activities probably won’t be able to do it last minute. In many cases, expectations for difficult staffing are now ‘baked in’ to the local economy and adjustments have been made.
A View from Local Businesses
Terry Ring, owner of Ketchum’s Silver Creek Outfitters, agreed that local businesses have had to remain nimble during the tumultuous past two years. “We are finally getting back to a cadence of the pre-Covid years with normal vacation schedules, planned reunions, weddings, and business meetings,” he said. “And people have definitely adjusted to the new reality here. Going into summer, it’s an optimistic time.” However, Ring added that some of the ways businesses are coping with changing demographics, the economy, and the Valley’s housing shortage shouldn’t alter the Sun Valley experience wherever possible. “I think, as a community, while we definitely need to keep up with demand and evolving conditions, we also all have to maintain the experience and continue to deliver on an exceptional customer service experience that differentiates us from everywhere else. Many changes have been out of necessity, but we still need to focus on what makes this area so desirable for visitors and residents alike.” Ring is actively hiring, both for summer and for full-time, year-round staff, looking for people who are passionate about the local lifestyle and the area. “We are actively trying to attract the best people,” Ring said.
Jane Drussel, owner of Hailey’s Jane’s Artifacts and Jane’s Stationery, is also hiring, though she said she is grateful that “we have a good crew and a crew that’s been with us for a long time.” When an opening does become available, she said, “It’s hard to find the right person. Wages have gotten so high that it’s put a crunch on how many people we can hire.” This summer, though, Drussel feels confident about staffing. “I have some college kids who are coming back, so I’m kind of set. It really helps to have people returning who have worked with you before,” she added. She did note, however, that she has seen a change in who is available for summer jobs. “The college kids who are applying are from here. They come home for the summer and can live with their families. Kids don’t really come here anymore to work who don’t live here unless they have a place to stay.” Like many small-business owners, though, Drussel said, she is still very hands-on, “working 24/7.” She said, “I can’t imagine being away very long.”
Despite serious housing challenges, an experienced workforce who is close to retirement, cost-of-living increases, and the other macro and micro issues that are bound to affect the Wood River Valley, there are also causes for optimism. According to Griffith, “The recent influx of primarily Peruvian families—about 300—has helped to fill a variety of jobs in the construction and trades sectors. It is taking a little pressure off.” And Ring said he looks forward to the return of students looking for summer jobs. “We always do well hiring bright, hardworking, high school and college students. They’re here to have fun, and bring with them a happy, upbeat vibe. They work hard and play hard and are an important part of our service culture,” he shared. The most positive news for summer 2023 may be that if someone is interested in joining the workforce, full-time, part-time or seasonal, many sectors are seeking employees with varied levels of experience. If someone wants a job in the Wood River Valley, there is a good chance they can find one.
Where the jobs are
The ‘jobs’ tab on the sunvalley.com website shows a long and varied list of both part-time and full-time, seasonal, and year-round openings in departments from catering and conventions, to recreation, to retail, to operations. There is something to appeal to a wide range of job seekers and Sun Valley has the benefit of offering housing to their employees. But still, a lengthy list of options for job seekers is still available as spring turns to summer. A glance at other ‘now hiring’ posts show openings up and down the Valley; from kitchen managers to deli workers, from maintenance techs to sales associates, from carpenters to digital marketing — people are hiring. Those with a yen to work outdoors can apply to be pool attendants, landscapers, or house painters.
In some ways, this summer is like many that have come before, though school schedules seem to bite into more and more of the summer. Drussel said, “College and high school employees get out late and go back early. If I hire a high school employee, they have to go back to school right when I need them — during the ‘back to school’ rush! Somehow, we always make it through, though.” On the other end of the spectrum, many reliable, experienced, full-time older workers are also moving toward retirement age. Ring said, “One of the things affecting the community right now is that people who have worked for decades here are retiring and there is no one to take their place. They had housing security. Today’s high cost of housing, high cost of living, are making it harder to move or stay here.”
With the community readying for a busy season, Griffith and Sun Valley Economic Development are looking ahead and continuing to work with local businesses to create positive, constructive solutions to ongoing challenges. “We are currently looking to do a needs assessment with the construction industry and continue to work with the hospitality, restaurant, lodging, and outfitter industries to see how things can improve. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
The organization will host a community roundtable on June 26 at Zenergy Health Club in Ketchum to discuss employment, wages, and issues affecting the local workforce and businesses. The event is open to the public and will run from 4:30 – 7 p.m.
As far as the short-term for this summer is concerned, Griffith said, “The broad statement is that it looks like there is a little less pressure in terms of securing talent compared to the previous two summers. But the real question is exactly how busy the summer is going to be.”