Job market still solid | SteamboatToday.com

Job market still solid

Despite national trends, unemployment low, construction booming

Blythe Terrell

— By most accounts, the national job slump hasn’t slammed Routt County.

The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 5.5 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was an increase from 5 percent in April and the biggest one-month gain in 22 years, The Associated Press reported. A year earlier, the rate was 4.5 percent.

Colorado’s unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in April; May figures were not available.

In Routt County, however, the rate was about 3 percent, said Brian Bradbury, an employment specialist at the Steamboat Springs Workforce Center. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment runs that agency.

“Here in Routt County, when you get 3 (percent) or below, you’re almost at full capacity,” Bradbury said. “It really is that there’s not a lot of people out there looking for work.”

The strain, he said, is on employers, who are struggling to find qualified workers. That has been the local trend for the past couple of years, Bradbury said. The work force agency also is fielding more calls from people in areas with weak economies.

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“We’re getting people coming in from a lot of other states, like Michigan,” Bradbury said. They are asking “particularly about Steamboat and the Western Slope. There are a lot of questions about the oil and gas industry.”

Routt County has a few economic advantages, said consultant Scott Ford, who works with local economic data. The economy is diverse, with residents’ income coming from a variety of sources, he said.

Construction tops that list. Countywide in 2006, 23.1 percent of income came from construction. The industry also represented the most jobs, 16.6 percent. That beats industries including food, lodging, retail and health care.

Although Ford predicted the weak economy would result in fewer construction jobs, those in the industry say it hasn’t lost steam yet.

Mike Backlund, project director at general contractor Drahota Construction, said the company’s Steamboat office was powering forward. His company is working on the Alpenglow development and Trailhead Lodge.

“Up here, we’ve had as big a backlog as we’ve ever had,” Backlund said. “We do hear some things from developers that financial institutions are requiring considerably more money up front from them, sometimes as much as 30 percent more money. That’s kind of putting the squeeze on them. If that continues, that will certainly trickle down to us.”

But Steamboat is unusual, he said. Drahota has a larger office in Fort Collins, and business there has been slowing for eight months or a year, Backlund said. The company has a few summer projects in the pipeline, however, so he said he expects things to pick up.

Bradbury said the work force agency hadn’t seen a drop in construction jobs.

“You’re seeing wages go up, but I think there is a slowdown in construction,” he said. “Some people are holding up, but we’re seeing about the same number of jobs.”

Nationally, the unemployment rate in the construction field was 8.6 percent in May, compared with 6.9 percent a year ago.

Todd Ficken of F&D International LLC is the program manager for construction projects at Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools in Steamboat. He said the industry is strong here because of the large number of ongoing construction projects.

“I speculate that if you were in town and a qualified construction worker, you would have no problem getting a job,” Ficken said. “Whether it’s sustainable or not, I don’t know.”

The future of local construction jobs depends on the number of projects in the pipeline, he said.

Sarah Fox, vice president of Fox Construction, said some developers have postponed projects until next year but that others have stepped up to fill their spots.

“We’re at about the same level, which is good because the market in the United States in general is way down,” Fox said.

She also has seen a trend of subcontractors coming in from the Front Range to look for work in Steamboat. It’s good for Fox, she said, because subcontractors here sometimes can’t keep up with the workload.

“A lot of them are looking at actually opening an office in Steamboat,” she said of the Front Range companies.

Fox Construction, like the other builders, is on the prowl for qualified workers.

Fox summed it up: “We’re hiring, and we probably will be through the summer.”