Steamboat Springs Tracy Barnett got out of the restaurant business three years ago because she was tired of "the employee hassle."
"When I would wake up in the morning, I would have no idea what my day would be like," said Barnett, director of Main Street Steamboat Springs and the former owner of Mazzola's restaurant. "Some days, I would have to be the bartender and the waitress. I'm sure it's even worse now."
Barnett's struggle finding and maintaining a reliable work force is common. It is cited by many Steamboat businesspeople as the No. 1 challenge to doing business here. It's not necessarily a new problem, but many think it has worsened in recent years and that there is no end in sight.
The trouble can be observed in many places. Brian Bradbury, employment specialist at the Steamboat Springs Workforce Center, said employers are strained, which is why fast-food workers in Steamboat can make $9 an hour, when they make minimum wage in other parts of the country.
Barnett said classified employment ads used to take up about two newspaper columns, when they now fill several pages.
While the situation is not Steamboat-specific, Colorado in general and Routt County in particular are feeling the pinch more than the rest of the country. The national unemployment rate
is at 4.5 percent, which is within a range economists consider "full employment."
In April 2007, the latest month for which figures were available, Colorado's work force was more tapped than the nation as a whole with an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent, according to the Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics. Routt County's unemployment rate was 2.6 percent that month.
"Once you get below 5 percent, you're really hiring people who maybe shouldn't be working," said Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative.
Moore said she has heard local businesspeople joke that they hired someone simply because they could "steam up a mirror."
Scott Gordon, president of Alpine Bank in Steamboat, said the current workforce squeeze has been caused by a "perfect storm" of conditions, including soaring real estate prices and a construction boom.
"There are more baby boomers creating jobs than baby busters to fill them," Barnett said.
Both Moore and Barnett said they have heard local businesspeople discuss closing due to the "employee hassle" that led Barnett to sell her restaurant. With property prices on the rise, the incentive to do that is even greater for those business owners who own the buildings they operate out of.
"Why put up with the hassle when you can sell?" Barnett asked. "In 10 years, many businesses on Lincoln (Avenue) might be gone - not because of going out of business, but from selling property."
Rex Brice, who bought Mazzola's from Barnett and also owns Rex's American Grill, said the shortage of reliable workers is the "biggest challenge within our industry" and has frustrated otherwise viable opportunities to expand his business.
"It's difficult to grow when there's a shortage of qualified people," Brice said. "It's not a lack of opportunity, it's a lack of qualified people."
Barnett said 10 years ago, Mazzola's would receive 10 to 15 applications within days of advertising an opening. Starting six years ago, she said, the restaurant would receive only five to six over a few weeks, with the quality of the applicants dipping along with their numbers.
Moore said in the past, Steamboat relied on people working here because they loved the town and would do anything to live here. But the increased cost of living here - plus the increased cost of driving here for workers who commute from outlying communities - is eroding that willingness of workers to sacrifice a lifestyle to work here.
Moore said the recent affordable housing and linkage policies passed by the City Council that are designed to create workforce housing should help when it comes to service industry jobs, but middle-class professionals still may struggle.
"What about teachers and what about all the people who give any community its sense of community?" Moore asked.
Those policies, aimed for the long term, also do little to address current workforce shortages.
"I think as the summer goes on, it's going to get worse," said Ed MacArthur of Native Excavating. "I don't think we can build houses fast enough to handle this influx; what we need are more affordable rentals."
When it comes to mitigating the impact of a workforce shortage, creativity is the name of the game. Steamboat businesses have employed a variety of tactics, from City Market employing exchange students from 13 countries, to Native Excavating recruiting out-of-work construction workers from the Midwest.
At a "workforce forum" presented Thursday by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Development Council, Gordon served on a panel that discussed retaining a work force. He shared some of the bank's strategies for retaining employees.
Gordon said Alpine Bank gives its employees several incentives to stick around. Among them is a bonus available to employees who refer new employees. Gordon said the program doesn't cost too much and is beneficial to the bank as well.
"We find that if an employee comes through a friend, there's a higher retention rate," Gordon said. "It's more fun to work with people you know."
Other incentives Alpine Bank offers its employees are a $3,000 interest-free loan to buy a computer and paid time off to do volunteer work.
These programs cost money, but Gordon said it's worth it.
"It certainly costs a lot more to hire and train someone than to retain someone," he said.
In his business, to find the right employees, MacArthur said he has resorted not only to going out of town, but out of Colorado as well.
"It's been a challenge for the past several years," MacArthur said. "There's competition for what's out there. Several of the guys we have are from out of state."
MacArthur said his business used connections in the Midwest to bring in unemployed construction workers from Michigan, where the construction industry has followed the auto industry into a slump.
In addition to getting creative, Barnett said it's also important to keep small things in mind.
"Usually what keeps people working is that they like the atmosphere, they like the boss," she said. "It's not always about the money, which I think businesses sometimes don't understand."
In the end, tactics to lure workers only go so far, and do little to combat the underlying problem that there just aren't enough employees around, a condition Gordon said is not improving.
"Our pool of employees is not expanding," Gordon said.
And MacArthur said there is little to do but wait for things to get better.
"We're just going to have to weather the storm," MacArthur said, "because there will come a time, in my opinion, when Steamboat will slow down."