Short-staffed employers take a breath after a busy summer

By now it’s a cliché to note that the job listings in Jackson Hole Daily spans five or six pages and that almost every shop window in Teton Valley displays a “Help Wanted” sign. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, the July unemployment rate in Teton County hovered around 2.4 percent, below the national rate of 3.7 percent, and many of those jobs were never filled. So how did businesses get through the busy season?

Clayton Gottler, the kitchen manager at Big Hole BBQ, felt the pressure. The Victor restaurant reopened in April 2017 after a major remodel that expanded the kitchen and more than doubled its dining space. With all that extra capacity, Gottler said, this summer was the busiest yet, and they didn’t have enough cooks to handle it. He found himself frequently working the line, and felt he had left most of his managerial duties fall by the wayside.

“My office looks like a bomb went off,” he said. “I just haven’t had time.”

Gottler said that with wintery weather moving into the valley, business will finally slow down because the majority of Big Hole BBQ’s seating is outside.

This summer the restaurant had to make do by closing the kitchen occasionally and limiting its menu. Other valley eateries have made similar adjustments.

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Local restaurants have been struggling with the tight labor market this year. Some coping methods include limited operating hours or smaller menus. The Royal Wolf has closed its kitchen on Tuesdays, an unprecedented step.

Gottler has raised wages to retain staff, and also sometimes drafts Jackson Big Hole BBQ cooks to come help with catering gigs in Teton Valley. The Jackson restaurant is fully staffed, thanks in part to the J-1 visa students who come to the national parks and surrounding towns in droves each summer. According to the US State Department, Jackson alone, not including Teton Village or areas north, had 318 active J-1 summer work travel participants between May and July of this year. Compared to that, Teton Valley had 22, all employed by Grand Targhee Resort.

MD Nursery has long used H-2B non-agricultural visas for summer landscaping and irrigation workers. Some seasonal employees have come from Mexico to Teton Valley habitually for almost two decades and several people, with MD’s assistance, have successfully applied for their green cards. A two-month delay in this year’s visa process left MD scrambling; the landscaping department had to turn away contracts. Because the 50 visa workers didn’t arrive until June, MD enlisted a recruiting company, which sourced workers from Puerto Rico to offset the early season burden.

“It was scary,” said MD controller Mandi Wilkinson. “Our visa workers are a third of our laborers in the summer. We weren’t sure if we should cancel jobs we already had or if we should still be looking for jobs for the season because we didn’t know if we were going to get them.”

Carrie Baysek, the MD Nursery garden shop manager, said that this summer she was always at least two employees short; she just couldn’t attract or retain enough help.

Baysek sometimes felt powerless. “At a job interview, it feels like you’re the one being interviewed, not the applicant.”

This year she noticed additional challenges in training young employees.

“What I’ve noticed in the past few years is we now have to teach young kids how to be an employee first; to get off their phones, work fast, no sitting, be reliable, follow through with tasks assigned, look at customers, be polite. And then after all that we can train them how to do the job they were hired for. They just come in not really as mature or having the life skills as they used to.”

Even though they have no employment history, young applicants want to be paid more, Baysek added.

She started hiring in March this year and found that it was an effective way to catch seasonal winter employees who were planning ahead for their summer ventures. When she does find a valuable summer employee, she will offer him or her a year-round position, even if there isn’t a demand for it, in order to “hang on to the good ones.” She is considering offering an end of season bonus to retain workers, a strategy that many Jackson businesses use.

Like many employers in the valley, MD sources labor from Rexburg, where wages are lower and there’s a large, young workforce thanks to BYU-I. Teton Valley Health also employs many Upper Valley staff members, including recent university graduates. TVH marketing director Lane Valiante said those young Rexburg commuters are some of the best workers.

“We haven’t found the millennial stereotype to be true at all,” she said. “Our young employees are responsible, fast, reliable, and dedicated.”

Although health care is not as seasonally driven as the service industry, Teton Valley Health has its own staffing crunches. With over 100 full time positions and 60 part time, Dory Harris, the TVH human resources director, said there’s always a department or two that’s operating short-staffed; right now her own small department is only at 50 percent.

TVH doesn’t have the ability to just shut down a day or two a week in order to adjust to fewer employees.

“Employees pull together and work with their department managers to deal with shortages,” Valiante said. “It all revolves around teamwork.”

Because so many of the positions at TVH require specialization and education, recruitment is a constant, company-wide endeavor that takes creativity and networking. Harris offers internal and community referral bonuses up to $500, stays in touch with program managers and HR directors at universities and regional facilities, posts all open careers not only online at tvhcare.org/careers but also in the hospital cafeteria, next to the time clock, and on social media.

“Word of mouth is king. Everyone is recruiting as a whole,” Harris said. “If it’s a shortage in their department, they’re very eager to find someone to fill that position.”

While the See N’ Save, the thrift store that benefits TVH, currently has a “Help Wanted” sign on its door, Valiante said that staffing there isn’t as much of a problem because the store provides “an open opportunity for all members of the community.”

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There are "Help Wanted" signs in the windows of establishments throughout the county. 

 

“It’s a unique business because there’s so much flexibility,” she continued. “Milissa [West, the See N’ Save manager] can take people without any work experience, interns, people who are doing community service, people who have special needs. Milissa is willing to cultivate a variety of entry-level staff.”

Brian McDermott, the executive director of the Teton Regional Economic Coalition, said that the number of career-oriented jobs available in the valley is growing, meaning that motivated workers can and should be more selective.

“With such tight financial margins in retail, food and other visitor services, it’s hard for owners to pay their teams well without raising prices beyond affordability,” McDermott said. “That’s been an industry dilemma for ages and why those jobs used to be held by students who were happy to work for minimum wage.”

Gottler thinks housing is the primary reason for the labor shortage, along with the pull of higher-paying jobs in Jackson. He regrets that Big Hole BBQ can’t pay a cook a high enough salary to afford a mortgage in today’s tight real estate market. He thinks that the increase in vacation rentals is a contributing factor to the job crisis and while he said he doesn’t have the bandwidth to put pressure on local government officials to address the issue, he has friends who are involved and informed.

Public entities are at a disadvantage in a tight job market. Employers like Teton County operate on a strict budget that doesn’t allow for quick salary hikes or stipends. The county has six job postings on its website, while the City of Victor opted to contract out its landscaping this summer when it couldn’t fill a seasonal park maintenance position.

The Idaho Department of Labor, which now offers open office hours one day per week in Driggs at the Teton Geo Center, is hearing from employers statewide about the challenge of finding staff.

“That’s the top concern that we regularly hear,” Idaho Labor director Jani Revier said. “This is one of the longest periods of low unemployment that we’ve ever seen.”

Most of those interviewed were hopeful that next summer will somehow be different. For now, as Teton Valley slowly relaxes into shoulder season, business owners are still struggling to cope with the realities of a small employee pool.

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