By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Tour buses are back; foreign worker visas are being approved; COVID restrictions have been rescinded. The tourism industry seems poised to enjoy a successful post-pandemic summer season in Wyoming.
But a lack of much-needed labor is casting a dark cloud on that sunny outlook.
“After 2020, we experienced the great resignation,” said Tina Hoebelheinrich, Executive Director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “You know, when (the country) still has – what is it, like, 3 million job openings? If every employable person actually went back to work, we would still be short 3,000 workers.”
With the ability of employers to hire foreign workers again this year after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, it would seem that some of those shortages might be addressed.
But Hoebelheinrich reported that issues including affordable housing and childcare will hamper the ability of employers to attract workers – foreign or domestic – during Wyoming’s busiest season.
“People who have worked in service-type jobs here in Cody, they’re typically making, what, $15 to $20 (per hour)? And that’s probably on the high end,” she said. “If they’re a double-income family and have kids, we are having an extreme shortage of childcare here.”
Hoebelheinrich said there have been some conversations among community leaders about addressing the shortage of childcare options, but no solutions have been forthcoming.
Nor have solutions surfaced to address the problem of affordable housing for seasonal employees – particularly foreign workers brought to America using special visas.
“Where previously, (workers) may have been able to rent a house for the summer, so much of our real estate has been converted to vacation rental properties that affordable housing and summer-only housing is just at a premium,” Hoebelheinrich said. “And so all of that factors into whether or not it makes sense for employers to try and get (foreign workers), or to try and recruit locally. It’s a pretty big problem.”
Other tourism-oriented communities, such as Jackson, are experiencing the same issues, especially when it comes to determining if the community can support the foreign workers needed to staff businesses during the busy summer season.
“Any foreign worker really needs a lot of support, including housing,” said Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “And if the housing isn’t there, what a lot of employers are forced to decide, even though they want (foreign workers), that they need to, if they have employee housing or they have year-round access to rentals or ownership, they are using those for critical year-round workers.”
Olson relayed the situation of one large employer who used to bring in between 30 and 40 foreign workers, but who this summer won’t host any.
“They had to decide, because they used to provide rental housing for the seasonals, but they’ve had to give that rental housing now to the year-round employees,” she said.
Hoebelheinrich and Olson both reported that some larger employers in their respective communities have their own on-site employee housing. But that isn’t the case for most small businesses that hire a handful of foreign workers to round out staff numbers in the summer.
Which is why Hoebelheinrich said Cody is looking to boost the workforce from within the community – focusing on young people just getting started in the job market.
“We implemented our first ‘Work-Ready Bootcamp’ (this spring),” she said. “We will finish 10 kids, ages 14 to 16, who will be certified workforce-ready. That means that they have studied customer service, critical thinking, workplace etiquette, just those soft skills that a lot of first-time-into-the-workforce young people don’t have. And oftentimes, in an economy like ours, where we absolutely hit the ground running, it’s hard for employers, and especially sole proprietors, to have the time to invest in those soft skills.”
Hoebelheinrich expressed some concern about other challenges facing businesses this tourist season, such as high gas prices that might deter some would-be travelers from making the trek to Wyoming.
“Campground bookings have slowed down a little bit,” she said. “You know, this time last year we had several campgrounds that were full for the year. But we’re not seeing that, and you can attribute that, I’m sure, to high gas prices.
You know, it doesn’t matter how good your vehicle is when you’re towing a big camper or you’re driving a big RV and you’re looking at 15 miles to the gallon, probably,” she continued. “And when diesel is over $5 a gallon, that really changes what is practical for people to do.”