Unemployment hits four-year high

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— Routt County seemed almost immune from unemployment as the 1990s wound down. Those days are gone.

Information released by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment shows November unemployment in Routt County rose to 4.1 percent. That compares to unemployment rates that were firmly lodged between 1 and 2 percent between 1998 and 2001.

"It's the highest I've seen in a long time," said Pat Bonny of the Colorado Workforce Center in Steamboat Springs. "It's the highest in four years."

State figures reflect a work force of 11,399 people in Routt County, with 10,930 of them employed and 469 out of work. Bonny's office is working with 186 people currently receiving unemployment benefits.

Unemployment here rose from 3.4 percent in October. A year ago, in November 2001 it stood at 3.1.

Steamboat's resort economy is cyclical, with many business owners hiring for the winter resort season in November and finally putting those new hires to work in mid-December. However, Sandy Evans-Hall of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association said there has been a marked shift in the way employers prepare for the busy season.

In the tight labor market that prevailed two, three and four years ago, Evans-Hall said, employers felt compelled to aggressively ramp up for the ski season and put a full staff in place. That began to change, perhaps permanently, in the fall of 2001. Amid the uncertainty that prevailed in the post-Sept. 11 months, employers canceled local ski season job fairs and took a very conservative approach to hiring.

"A lot of employers were forced to do with less and they found new efficiencies," Evans-Hall said. "With last-minute booking trends, it's hard to staff up. That's something of the past."

Instead, Evans-Hall said, employers are running lean and hiring additional employees in key periods of the resort season. Their ability to operate that way is supported by the fact that major service industry employers are seeing higher return rates among seasonal workers, she added.

They can count on veteran employees to hit full stride quickly, and they save on the added expense of training new recruits.

Community First National Bank President Paul Clavadetscher said in many local businesses, payroll is the biggest expense.

Retail operators are working more shifts themselves to remain profitable.

"People are spending a lot more hours in their businesses simply because they need to in order to become financially successful," he said.

Evans-Hall believes a significant portion of the employment downturn in Routt County can be attributed to commercial construction.

However, that piece of the puzzle may not show up in figures at the Workforce Center. Construction workers tend to migrate to find jobs, she said.

Scott Ford of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council said construction has been a significant engine in the local economy and will continue in that role for some time to come.

But he agreed with Evans-Hall that commercial construction is trending downward.

He pointed out that the recently completed Community Indicators Project showed 3,125 members of Routt County's work force were involved in the construction business in 2000.

"It wouldn't take much of a slowdown to create a big impact," Ford said. "A 20 percent hit would amount to 600 people" out of work.

Evans-Hall said she expects well-connected construction veterans here to be OK because they will find work in the residential construction sector. However, the big crews that migrated to Steamboat for the large commercial jobs of the late 1990s will just move elsewhere.

Clavadetscher said his contacts tell him Routt County will see a healthy building season this summer based on new construction starts on large single-family homes, including a number at Catamount Ranch and Club.

"I think the summer is going to be better," Clavadetscher said. "It's not going to be a great summer, but it's looking better. We're seeing some new projects coming in."

Clavadetscher sees the signs of the changing local employment situation in the uncommonly low turnover on his own teller line.

"We've had no turnover in the past year," Clavadetscher said. "That has never happened in the previous nine and a half years that I've been here. In the past, we always carried an extra employee because we knew someone would leave."

People are more likely to hang onto their jobs and their benefits in the current economic climate, Clavadetscher said.

The toughest part of the economic downturn, Clavadetscher said, has been seeing a longtime friend who had lived here for 20 years and become a significant member of the youth hockey community move away to seek employment.

"We're seeing people leave," Clavadetscher said. "That's the sad part of this thing. That's a concern to me."

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