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Where Have All the Employees Gone?

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Housecleaner, dishwasher, receptionist, lift operator, cook. These are some of the many minimum wage jobs posted on craigslist the first week of March for the North Tahoe/Truckee region. While help wanted signs abound in the area, employees do not.

Local employers are lamenting the lack of employees to fill certain jobs in the region and are forced to be creative. Anecdotal accounts proliferate of cafés closing earlier, businesses training already-hired employees to fill other positions within the company, and shops shifting focus — all due to the shortage of qualified employees.

‘It’s an Employee Market’

Heidi Hill Drum, executive director of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, relayed how the South Shore Chamber of Commerce had the position of a bookkeeper open for months before filling it. Aaron Breitbard, service manager for the Start Haus in Truckee, bemoaned that the shop has been looking for a qualified bike mechanic since the summer. And Pam Jahnke, co-owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, said she has been looking to fill a buyer position since December.

“It’s been hard the whole season,” Jahnke said. “It’s an employee market.”

Breitbard said it has been difficult to find an employee who is highly-skilled and a good employee, noting that the shop has hired mechanics, but they never last long.

“The number of people who are skilled bike mechanics is low. They also need to be personable, responsible, and punctual,” he said. “Our solution is to take an employee that is a good employee and train him to be a good mechanic.”

Drew Taylor, co-owner of Dark Horse Coffee in Truckee, said it has been a learning curve with hiring in the area. When Taylor opened the coffee shop nearly two years ago with his wife, they hired people who were transient and then had to replace employees every few months. He said it is important to them to have employees who live locally.

“It takes the worry off the business owner when you have consistent employees who are invested in your business. That’s important,” Taylor said. “It’s all a learning process, but it helps to have consistency; it frees you up.”

The need for employees cuts across all job-types, not just those of the minimum wage variety, said North Lake Tahoe Resort Association Executive Director Sandy Evans Hall. She said she has heard from a variety of government agencies with “highly benefited” jobs that have been having difficulty filling positions. The lack of employees seems to be striking the region as a whole.

“We’ve been hearing those types of comments from businesses all around the Basin,” Hill Drum said. “But it’s anecdotal at this point. Our Workforce Tahoe project will identify different challenges for employers.”

Finding Solutions, Filling Jobs

The Tahoe Prosperity Center’s Workforce Tahoe project is gearing up for Reno’s projected 50,000 new jobs between now and 2019. Hill Drum said Tahoe and Truckee’s employers need to prepare so they can stay competitive with employees. Currently, 50 percent of the workforce in North Tahoe/Truckee commute in from out of the area, according to the Tahoe Prosperity Center. She said it is important to ask the following questions: What will those impacts be on our local businesses? How is Lake Tahoe preparing for the workforce needs of the future — not just for our core industry of tourism, but for the changing economy and our other economic clusters?

“If employees are finding wages are higher in Reno, why would they work in Tahoe,” Hill Drum asks. “Wages in Tahoe are significantly lower than region-wide. It is a real tough place to make a living.”

From now until the end of May, the Tahoe Prosperity Center will gather information from employers on what challenges they face, including issues around recruitment and retention. Afterwards, the center will aim to come up with solutions between June and October.

Although the Tahoe/Truckee area is currently facing an employee shortage, Evans Hall said it is not unique to this area.

“Every single ski town is going through what we are. It is not unusual for high-cost areas,” Evans Hall said. “Every time the economy improves, we have a housing shortage and an employee shortage.”

It is that housing shortage that employers point to as a main reason for not being able to recruit employees. Jahnke said that she has had qualified employees from out of the area apply, but then they can’t find anywhere to live.

“It is so scary,” Jahnke said. “Really, it is the housing. There is absolutely nowhere to live.”

While Evans Hall contends there is an issue, she said this is typical after a recession.

“There’s not a lot we can do to recruit employees to the area for one job at a time,” Evans Hall said. “It is up to the employer.”

Employers wishing to be part of the Tahoe Prosperity Center’s Workforce Tahoe project should visit tahoeprosperity.org/workforcetahoe.

 
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September 14, 2017