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Napa's unemployment rate hits 16 year low, creating both opportunities and challenges

Napa's unemployment rate hits 16 year low, creating both opportunities and challenges

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Napa County’s unemployment rate hit a 16-year-low in May, creating both opportunities for people looking for work and problems for employers seeking to hire.

May’s jobless rate dipped to 3.1 percent from 3.4 percent the month before, statistics show.

The last time the jobless rate was that low it was May 2001 when George W. Bush was president, “Friends” was still on TV and Facebook and Twitter had yet to be invented.

Unemployment ran high after the Sept. 11 attacks, the housing crisis and the Great Recession, peaking at 11.4 percent in both January 2010 and January 2011 before beginning its slow descent, statistics show.

Napa’s May rate is lower than both the state (4.2 percent) and federal (4.1 percent) unadjusted rates for the month. The rate is the seventh lowest among California’s 58 counties, records show.

Hitting that 16-year-low is “wonderful,” said Bruce Wilson, executive director of Workforce Alliance of the North Bay.

The low unemployment rate means those looking for work are in great demand, Wilson said. However, “for an employer it’s going to be more difficult to find talent,” he said.

Jennifer LaLiberte, an economic development consultant who worked for the city for 19 years, said she’s noticing that core Napa County industries such as tourism, manufacturing, hospitality, restaurants, health care and construction are busy.

“All of our top industries are thriving and have created lots of new jobs,” she said.

“The one downside (is that) it is difficult to find and retain employees in certain industries,” said LaLiberte. “You have to get creative and reach out further away. But it’s a good problem to have rather than the reverse.”

Cheryl Velasquez, director human resources at Embassy Suites Napa Valley, said the 16-year-low rate is great for the economy. “But for the actual employer, it’s a tough world out there. It’s very frustrating.”

“You cannot find people to fill the jobs,” she said. “We’ve tapped out our market.”

Velasquez has been in the Napa area since 2013. “When I first came here, it was not unlikely to have 20 or 30 people apply for a position. Now, I see four or five people apply for the same type of position.”

For example, at her hotel, “We have not been fully staffed for two years in housekeeping.” Today, out of 130 total team members, she has five jobs open in housekeeping.

“And if those rooms aren’t clean, we can’t sell them,” she said. “That’s our nucleus.”

“What we end up doing is working the people we have overtime and stressing all of our resources,” she said. Long term, “That’s no way to run a business.”

The need for more workers “causes us to be exceptionally creative in recruiting,” said Velasquez.

The hotel offers an incentive program to employees with multiple $50 payments and a final $100 payment for recruiting successful hires. “We can’t do it all. We need our team going out and finding people for us,” she said.

She runs into several common obstacles in recruiting.

When recruiting outside of the Napa Valley, potential employees “are either going to face a housing issue or a transportation issue.”

It’s expensive to live in Napa, she said. There’s a housing shortage and workers are resistant to longer commutes.

Some potential employees even have trouble showing up for interviews or failing to return phone calls, said Velasquez.

“We have made job offers and have had people not come on the first day.” It’s frustrating, she said. But with so many employers looking for team members, “they know they can go down the street and get another job.”

The recruitment continues even after the job offer and start date have been set, noted Velasquez. Constant contact with the new hire between the time the offer is made and the start date is “critical,” she said.

“How are we making them feel part of the family before they become part of the family?” That can include handwritten notes and follow-up phone calls. Velasquez said she is careful to check in and walk employees through various steps before that first day of work.

“It’s a hand-holding process,” she said.

Wilson recommends that employers work together within their own industry to generate applicants.

“They need to promote their industry as a viable career pathway in Napa County,” with good jobs and wages, Wilson said.

At the Workforce Alliance, “We have been trying to convene employers in two industries – hospitality and healthcare,” said Wilson. A hospitality industry partnership of local employers held their own successful career fair, he said.

“You want to build a larger potential applicant pool for your industry,” said Wilson.

As for labor costs, “my expectation would be that wages would tend to increase because employers are having to get more creative and competitive and wages play a role in that,” he said.

At the same time, a low unemployment rate also means “it’s a good time for portions of the community that have typically seen higher levels of unemployment — like youth or people with disabilities — to begin a job search or brush up on their job skills,” said Wilson.

WorkForce Napa offers workshops on resume writing and access to job training, he said. The center is now located at former Dey pharmaceutical offices at 2751 Napa Valley Corporate Drive, and open Monday to Friday.

According to the Employment Development Department, the Napa County labor force totaled 73,900 in May 2016 compared to 74,100 this May. An estimated 2,600 people were seeking jobs a year ago, compared to 2,300 this May.

Occupations in Napa County with the most job ads in May included supervisors of food preparation and serving workers, retail salespersons, first-line supervisors of office and administrative support, maids and housekeeping cleaners, supervisors of retail sales workers, supervisors of production and operating workers, customer service representatives, registered nurses and hotel, motel, and resort desk clerks.

Employers with the most job ads included the Napa Valley Unified School District, Auberge du Soleil, Wyndham Worldwide, Silverado Resort and Spa, Treasury Wine Estates, St. Helena Hospital, Villagio Inn & Spa, Las Alcobas, Meritage Resort and Spa and Constellation Brands Inc.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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