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County tops 100,000 workers for the first time

Business is booming at Rogue Regency Inn as travelers hit the highways in record numbers.

That's proving both a blessing and a curse for Brady Gibson, assistant general manager, who oversees the Biddle Road hotel's operations.

"We're on the cusp of another summer, and we're hiring in every department right now," Gibson said. "The economy is strong, so people are traveling. But we can't find the employees to staff what we need. We have a good problem, but it's making for a bad problem. The lack of good workers is affecting our industry."

That's in part because more people are working in Jackson County than ever.

Figures released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show 100,116 people were employed in Jackson County during May.

"First time ever (going over 100,000)," said Guy Tauer, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department.

A 1.5 percent jump between May and April, when BLS figures showed employment of 98,169, trimmed the raw jobless rate to 3.9 percent, and a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.2 percent.

The flip-side is that plenty of jobs are left wanting.

"It's a very hard labor market right now," said Rogue Regency's Gibson.

At present, he oversees about 140 employees in the 203-unit hotel restaurant, sports pub and banquet departments. Housekeepers are in great demand during summer, but despite paying above minimum wage to housekeepers, Gibson said it's a struggle to maintain a full staff.

Last summer, Rogue Regency turned to a temporary employee agency for help.

"We never want to do that, but we can't let rooms go uncleaned," he said. "Once you can't sell a room, you can never make it up."

Gibson said the situation is such that employers are declining to do background checks and drug tests.

"We've conceded a lot just to find employees who can work for us," he said.

Still, retaining employees is a daunting task.

"If they don't like the schedule, or anything else, they can go find another job," Gibson said.

University of Oregon economist Tim Duy said the hospitality industry isn't alone in its struggle to retain employees.

"I'm hearing anecdotally across a lot of sectors that it's becoming increasingly hard to find workers," Duy said.

The danger for leisure and hospitality industry employers, he said, is that it's not simply a matter of raising prices and paying higher wages.

"It's harder to push higher prices to customers in the leisure and hospitality industry — particularly in restaurants," Duy said. "As a consequence, they're struggling to pay higher wages in order to attract more employees."

Duy expects the mid-August eclipse to underscore the breadth of the issue.

"That's going to be problematic for some parts of the state when the eclipse comes," he said. "We're expecting a million visitors to the state, and there's no way the leisure and hospitality industry can easily staff up for a more-than-25-percent population surge."

As the business cycle has matured, hiring has become an art.

Tauer said Employment Department job vacancy surveys attributed 70 percent of unfilled positions to a lack of applicants or lack of qualified applicants.

"Certainly there are jobs going begging," Tauer said. "That's an indicator of a strong labor market. We're at what we would consider full employment. We've had few layoffs and strength across nearly every sector. Still there are unemployed people because they don't have skills, experience, necessary training or can't pass background checks."

Last month, retail trade added 250 positions, leisure and hospitality gained 220 spots, while professional and business produced 180 additional paychecks. Construction saw an uptick of 80 jobs.

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Ruby Holguin-Robles, front desk agent and accountant with Rogue Regency in Medford, works with an arriving customer Wednesday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]