Summit County’s unemployment rate drops to 2.1%; entrepreneurs without staffing woes share insight into operations |

Summit County’s unemployment rate drops to 2.1%; entrepreneurs without staffing woes share insight into operations

Offering housing and competitive wages helps attract talent, says owners

The counter of True Blue Coffee & Gelato in Dillon is shown in November 2021. The shop is co-owned by Ariel Johnston and her sister and father, all of whom also co-own Everything Colorado, Frisco Trading Post and Copper Mountain Mercantile.
True Blue Coffee & Gelato/Courtesy photo

Summit County’s unemployment numbers keep dropping.

In February, the county’s unemployment rate was 2.9%. According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s April report, Summit County’s rate is now 2.1%, ranking it with 12 other counties whose rates are some of the lowest in the state. Other counties whose rates fall around Summit’s include Douglas (2.3%), Jackson (2%) and Elbert (2.3%).

According to the department’s April report, the state’s unemployment rate was at 3.6%.

Usually, lower unemployment rates correlate with difficulties hiring. This isn’t a new challenge for Summit County businesses. In the last year or so, many owners say they have struggled to fill open positions. Some have even reduced or switched up services to cope with the challenges while others have tried to beef up their employee wages and benefits.

But two local business owners are singing a different tune. Both Ariel Johnston and Lori Maphies say they aren’t struggling with staffing as they head into what’s expected to be an especially busy summer tourist season.

Johnston co-owns the Summit County stores Everything Colorado, Frisco Trading Post and Copper Mountain Mercantile. She also co-owns True Blue Coffee & Gelato. Johnston said it takes about 20 positions to keep all four businesses running. All of these are filled, except for a couple new positions at True Blue. The coffee shop just received its liquor license, so now Johnston said she’s on the hunt for individuals who are at least 21 years old.

Even then, she said she’s not worried about filling these positions.

“For us, we have done a pretty good job of staying fully staffed,” Johnston said. “When we start to dip below our numbers for staff, basically what we do is one of the owners — myself, my sister or my dad — will come in and fill that shift until we’ve found the right person. I think that’s helped in a sense of trying to get the right people.”

Maphies has relied on the same backup options as Johnston. Maphies, who co-owns Marigolds Farmhouse Funk & Junk in Breckenridge with her sister and daughter, said the three owners will pick up extra shifts to make sure the store stays running if they are lacking staff.

Typically, the store relies on seven positions to keep it running, and all of those are currently filled. Maphies said, historically, the store hasn’t had a tough time keeping these positions staffed up.

“I just think it’s a fun store, and we have a lot of loyal customers,” Maphies said of Marigold’s. “We just have a lot of people that would like to spend more time in there. Honestly, that’s just what I think it is. We offer a competitive wage, we give an employee discount, and so I just think that gets a lot of our customers that really love our store that would like to be in there with us.”

Other factors are at play too: Johnston said last year, the owners decided to invest in a two-bedroom unit so they could provide employee housing for some of their staff members.

She also pointed to The Pad, a new a hostel-hotel hybrid in Silverthorne, that gives individuals a taste of life in Summit County before they decide to fully move to the community. She said she’s hired numerous individuals who have stayed at The Pad before and who used it to transition to Summit County after moving.

That’s not to say that other businesses aren’t struggling with hiring, said Blair McGary, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce.

“People have left the community — at least 25% throughout the pandemic — so although we have a low unemployment rate, it doesn’t mean that staffing has improved,” McGary said in an email. “When unemployment rates are low, but there are still a number of open positions, it means that the skills don’t match the employment opportunities.”

That very well might be the case, especially as more jobs are added to the market. According to the April report, private industry sectors with significant job gains for that month included the state’s leisure and hospitality which saw an increase of 6,400 positions across the state. About 3,200 jobs were added to the trade, transportation and utilities industry. About 1,900 jobs were added to the construction industry.

As more jobs are added to the market and the competition to draw in talent remains fierce, it will be up to businesses to reel in applications and stand out from the crowd.

“I think places that are getting creative and being flexible with their employees are doing a good job and are able to attract and retain employees,” McGary said in the email.

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