Students’ return to school exacerbates Summit County labor shortage
Many business owners are preparing for additional challenges in the fall after a short-staffed summer
This summer has been a long one for many Summit County businesses: Local experts expect this summer’s occupancy and tourism numbers to outpace pre-pandemic levels, and to keep up with the crowds, many owners have tried enticing potential staffers to work for them through use of signing bonuses, increased wages and other perks.
One pool of candidates heavily relied on are high school- and college-age students. While these workers have provided much-needed relief during the summer, the beginning of the school year means many businesses are scrambling yet again.
Case in point: Of the roughly 12 to 15 staff members employed by Higgles Ice Cream in Breckenridge, about 11 are students who are going back to school. Owner Anna Higgins said that means she’s paying more in order to keep the shop running.
“The ones that can offer more hours, I’m having to pay more hourly but also give them more responsibility and just not rely on the high school students as much,” she said. “If they can come in, great. If they can’t, I’ve still got my graduates that can fill in.”
Her business isn’t the only one. Becky Foote, manager of Foote’s Rest Sweet Shoppe in Frisco, said the shop had about 15 staff members, eight of whom were college students who left for school. In addition, the shop employed six high school students, a few of whom aren’t coming back now that the academic year has started.
Foote said these students have limited availability, so it’s back to the drawing board with hiring. Luckily, she said the only positions needed are during the day because some of the remaining high school staff members will work in the evenings and on weekends.
Higgins said she’s still retaining some student workers, too. While some are athletes who aren’t available for a season, others are able to wor after school hours.
To adjust, Higgins said she’s getting creative with shifts and scheduling. Usually, one shift is from when the shop opens up at noon to around 5 p.m. To accommodate students, she’ll start a shift around 3 or 4 p.m, and she plans to close the shop an hour earlier on school nights. In total, she said she lost about three staff members.
Higgins noted that her candidate pool was already smaller this year, especially with other businesses in the county desperate for help.
“I didn’t have as many applicants to choose from anyway, and I definitely felt the pull,” she said. “I (usually) have more than that, but they got pulled away by the restaurants who don’t normally hire high school kids. I was competing financially with them — the bigger restaurants, the bigger businesses — to pay them better and try to attract them more because it was more appealing for them to work at a full-service restaurant because they get better tips.”
It’s not just students who are leaving a shortage, either. Cindy Sharpe, owner of Wyatt West and Cornflower Boutique and Gallery, had a teacher on her payroll, but now that class is in session, she’s down to two employees, including herself. Sharpe mentioned that when she bought Cornflower Boutique in 2019, there were about five employees.
Sharpe said she’s working four 12-hour days and that her other employee is working about three days per week. She’d like to hire a couple more positions, but like other owners, she’s finding it difficult to draw in applicants, even with added perks.
“I offer commission (of) 4% if you’re working by yourself, and you split it — 2% and 2% — if two people are here, which I never would have done in the past,” she said. “And then I’m all the way up to $18 an hour, which normally is $14.75 to $16 tops. We’re increasing our daily budget on Indeed which puts you at the top of the job search. I’m doing all these things. I’m putting money into just trying to hire someone.”
A free pass, discounted family and friends passes, paid holidays, accrued sick time and a $15 an hour wage are all perks Silverthorne Recreation Center is using to try enticing talent, manager Steven Herrman said. The center is losing quite a few workers now that school is starting, including about 10 high school students and about 12 college students.
Herrman said the changing schedules of high school students can be difficult to manage but that it’s the complete loss of the center’s college students that’s especially concerning. Already, the center is closed Sundays and operates on reduced hours Saturdays due to labor challenges.
“(The students) are college bound, and those are completely unfilled shifts,” Herrman said. “The high schoolers, we can still utilize them to some degree even though it’s later in the day after-hours.”
Higgins said now that life is returning to a semblance of normal, visitors and customers expect businesses to operate like they did pre-pandemic, but that’s not the case right now.
“I don’t think it’s just a housing issue,” she said. “I also think it has to do with the aftershocks of the pandemic. I almost feel like this is worse than the pandemic itself because at least with the pandemic, everybody was on a level playing field, and we were all hunkered down. Now, all businesses are expected to be normal again when the supplies aren’t normal, the employees aren’t normal, the employee pool isn’t normal. Nothing is normal right now. I just feel like it’s worse than the pandemic because the expectations are unrealistic.”
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