In Areas With Low Unemployment, Employees Are Hard to Keep

By Jennifer Levitz Features Dow Jones Newswires

Three counties in Colorado -- Baca, Summit and Yuma -- have the lowest unemployment in the country, which is making things tricky for area employers and residents.

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Gary Hoffner, a manager for an agricultural products company in Yuma County, where the non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 1.3% in April, said he went out and bought two trucks with automatic transmissions so his senior drivers don't have to shift gears.

"Two of my truck drivers right now, one of them is 75 and another is 82," said Mr. Hoffner, location manager for Agrium Inc.'s Crop Production Services. "I mean, that's what we're down to."

In Baca County, plumbers, electricians and other contractors are in such short supply that homeowners might have to wait a year or more for someone to come out, said County Commissioner Peter Dawson. Workers have the upper hand. "It's easy enough to quit one job and go to work within a couple of days with somebody else," Mr. Dawson said.

The labor market is getting tighter as the U.S. jobless rate fell to 4.3% in May, the lowest level in 16 years. Colorado had the lowest unemployment rate of all states at 2.3% in April, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, followed by Hawaii, North Dakota and New Hampshire.

"It's a good problem to have on some level, but it is a business concern because in order to have economic growth, you need to have an available supply of labor," said Mark Melnik, the director of economic and public policy research at UMass Donahue Institute in Massachusetts.

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In Summit County, Colo., Sandy Bucceri, a human resources manager for Denver-area Corum Real Estate Group, which manages more than 600 units of multifamily housing in mountain-resort towns, hasn't been able to fill a maintenance-technician position in Breckenridge that has been open since November.

Currently the maintenance supervisor is working 50 hours a week and is always on call, for everything from tenants locked out of their apartments to appliances not working. "We're worried about stretching him too thin and burning him out," she said.

Ms. Bucceri has raised the starting hourly wage to $21 from $17, but that hasn't helped because of a dearth of affordable housing. Corum's own Breckenridge units -- at which employees get a discounted rent -- are full.

She said she will get excited about an applicant from out of the area only to find out the person can't find a place to live. "My heart sinks, " she said.

In New Hampshire which has the lowest unemployment rate in the East, employers like Amanda Grappone bemoaned the latest jobs report.

"From an employer perspective I think, 'Oh, that's bad news,'" said Ms. Grappone, co-owner of Grappone Automotive Group, which has 340 employees and five locations in the Granite State.

Ms. Grappone said she struggles to find recruits even for sales jobs that require no sales background, offer 90 days of paid training and expected salaries of between $45,000 and $60,000 plus benefits in the first year. And she isn't the only local employer struggling. Other companies in her area are using billboards to lure recruits.

"We're all vying for the same teeny, tiny population of people," Ms. Grappone said.

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 02, 2017 16:18 ET (20:18 GMT)