Difficulties with recruiting and retaining quality employees are nothing new to Steamboat Springs.
But the situation will only get worse as Steamboat grows and the cost of living rises, local recruiting consultant Karen Goedert said last week. Goedert said the best solution for employers is to offer increased pay and better benefits, along with refocusing their recruiting efforts.
"Gone are the days where you can bring people in for $12 an hour," said Goedert, who is the executive recruiter for Steamboat Springs-based Resort Recruiters. "I think it's time for employers to step up."
Goedert spoke Wednesday to a group of local businesspeople at a Success Steps breakfast at Colorado Mountain College's Small Business Resource Center.
Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative, worried that Steamboat could be losing competitive ground in the regional labor market.
"We're in such a transition," Moore said. "I am concerned that the lifestyle : is going to have less attractiveness to people when they compare it to the cost of living and how much money they'll have in their pocket at the end of the day."
External forces might not help Steamboat in the future.
By 2012, the United States will be producing more jobs than people, Moore said, creating an employees' market.
"Our unemployment is 2.5 percent in Routt County," Goedert said. "Everyone who wants to work here already is."
Goedert said a region is considered to have "full employment" when the unemployment rate is 3 percent or lower.
Steamboat has often relied on foreign workers for part-time and seasonal positions. But when foreign economies strengthen, foreign workers will stop returning, Moore said.
As of last week, Steamboat Springs was 26 drivers short for its winter bus service, in part because Australian workers are not returning because of an energy boom in their home country.
Recruiting problems are not limited to low-wage workers, either. Skilled workers and management must often be recruited from outside the area, as well, which further raises the cost of hiring.
"Here in Steamboat, it's almost impossible to hire an executive-type person who already lives here," said Blue Wipperfurth, who works in human resources for First National Bank of Steamboat Springs.
Although employers cannot control the economy on their own, they have to do their part to fix Steamboat's recruitment problems, Goedert said.
Some of the situation is within employers' control. Goedert said she frequently hears complaints that businesses take weeks before responding to an application or fail to respond to inquiries at all, even
while they're still advertising for the position.
"The No. 1 thing ... is to respond to all applicants. I can't believe people aren't doing that," she said.
However, many of the methods to make recruiting easier require throwing money at the problem.
"I think one thing people around here could do is offer some incentives," said Kim Dye, director of concierge services for Mountain Resorts. "Everyone assumes you can't keep people here more than six months or a year, so they don't try.
"People get used to the fact that it's hard to hire good people around here, and they begin to think that just showing up is good enough," Dye continued, suggesting that employers contribute toward a ski pass, or give employees extra time off as rewards.
Housing assistance also can be a powerful tool for local businesses.
"A lot of larger local employers are looking into buying properties, so they can rent or sublease them out to employees," said Randy Rudasics, director of the Small Business Resource Center at Colorado Mountain College.
The city of Steamboat Springs recently purchased the Iron Horse Inn with the intention of converting it into housing for its employees, and the ski resort "couldn't exist" without the Walton Ponds apartments, he said.
"One of our challenges here is we have so many small companies, who can't offer the same benefits as the large companies," Rudasics said.
Flexible work schedules in lieu of the traditional 9-to-5 workday are highly sought-after, because they allow employees to spend time with their families and take advantage of Northwest Colorado's outdoor recreation opportunities, Goedert said.
Although the cost of living in the Steamboat Springs area is a disincentive, it is still a highly desirable place to live, and employers need to use that to their advantage, Rudasics said.
"If you think about Steamboat and the lifestyle and the culture : it's everything folks want," Rudasics said. "We just need to figure out a way to get people here and make it affordable."