Though unemployment in Blaine County has dipped to its lowest level in years, the local labor force is still far removed from its pre-recession peak, economists say.

    “We haven’t had a vibrant recovery. From a strictly jobs perspective, we peaked in 2007,” said David Patrie, Sun Valley Economic Development outreach director.

    But Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey continue to keep the job market afloat with big-time employers such as Atkinsons’ Market, Power Engineers, Rocky Mountain Hardware, St. Luke’s Wood River hospital and Sun Valley Resort.

    A decade ago, top valley employers looked a little different. Major players Scott Sports and Smith Optics—born and bred in Ketchum—together provided more than 100 jobs with ample promotional opportunity.

    “There was good potential for upward mobility working at Scott and Smith—you weren’t just stuck in a menial position,” Patrie said of the Ketchum companies.

    By 2015, both Scott and Smith had left the valley for good after being bought out by multinational corporations.

    In the past four years, a number of hotels—including the Limelight, Hotel Ketchum and Bellevue’s Silver Creek Hotel—have stepped up to provide jobs in the hospitality industry, which currently employs the most Blaine County residents.

    Idaho Department of Labor economist Jan Roeser said one attribute of the prominent leisure-and-hospitality industry, whose employees make an average of $25,130 annually, is a higher volume of commuters from out of town due to a lack of economical housing.  

    “There is less housing available, as more units transition into vacation properties,” she said. “Most jobs are in the lower-paying hospitality and retail sectors, so the labor pool continues to be restricted by a lack of affordable housing.”

2000-2017: A rollercoaster period

    From 2000 until 2017, Blaine County lost 108 businesses—from around 1,540 to 1,430—but saw a net increase of around 1,000 jobs.

    However, Roeser said the number of businesses closely paralleled the number of jobs most of the time during this time period at a 97 percent correlation rate. That’s not to say that a decrease in the number of businesses is necessarily a sign of a slumping economy—more likely, it’s a sign of consolidation.

    Patrie listed one such example.

    “When you have a large percentage of people who moved here in the ’80s and are ready to retire, you’ll see some of them shut down their companies instead of passing them on to relatives. Other retirees will sell, so you’ll get a ‘Company A absorbs Company B’ situation,” he said.

    Roeser said the aging local demographic has created a bit of a conundrum.

    “There are a lot of baby boomers retiring, and also contributing to the loss of workers since it’s more difficult to find individuals willing to work in a high-cost area,” she said.

    According to data from the Idaho Department of Labor, the number of employers in Blaine County surged from 2002 until 2010, averaging at around 1,740 per year.

    This upward trend came to a halt, however, when the economy entered a rough patch between 2011 and 2014 following the Great Recession. In those three years, the business count fell to 1,410, with around 330 companies folding; the lowest point came in 2012, when 1,320 businesses remained in operation.

    By 2015, though, Blaine County’s business count had surged back to pre-2011 levels (1,565). But the improvement was short-lived: In 2016, more than 240 businesses folded, bringing the total down to about 1,320.

    Blaine County saw a second surge in business count in 2017, adding back nearly all companies lost in 2016. Then, in 2018, the number dipped again to around 1,430.

    Roeser said she had her theories of why that is.

    “There is commentary out there that the lack of workforce, due to demographics and more place-specific challenges, is catching up and slowing down growth of business overall,” she said. “In Blaine County and Ketchum, much is dependent on weather, and the snow was not as great last year, if I recall correctly.”

A long recovery

    In 2011, when Blaine County was still scrambling to recover from the recession, jobs fell to their lowest number at around 11,410. That’s 2,280 down from 13,690 just four years earlier.

    Of all year-to-year drops in job count, the most dramatic occurred between 2008 and 2009, when 1,570 Blaine County residents were put out of work. (That’s an 11.7 percent drop.) Around 50 businesses were shuttered in 2009, bringing the county’s total number down 2.7 percent.

    Ketchum was particularly hard-hit during the Great Recession: While it provided 5,380 jobs in 2008, or 40 percent of all jobs in Blaine County, that number had fallen to about 4,700 by 2009.

    Curiously, when Ketchum’s job count dropped between 2008 and 2009, Sun Valley jobs picked back up at an increase of 5.5 percent and climbed throughout the recession. (The same thing happened when Ketchum’s job count once again fell in 2018, from about 5,080 to 4,830 positions, and Sun Valley added more than 60 jobs.)

    “It makes sense that businesses close during downturns, and when another business closes or reduces employment there can be synergy,” Roeser said.

    Patrie said the cause of this inverse relationship is unclear, but Sun Valley—and specifically the resort—has proven to be recession-resistant.

    “Sun Valley is a much smaller pool, obviously, but the fact is it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the city’s job sector,” Patrie said.  

     Between 2015 and 2016, a much smaller-scale recession was felt throughout the valley, with about 390 jobs lost (a 3.1 percent decrease) and more than 240 businesses folding (a 15.4 percent decrease).

    That mirrored a nationwide mini-recession from 2015 to 2016 caused by a stagnation in business investment, falling oil prices and a “run-up in the value of the dollar,” as detailed in The New York Times’ “The Most Important Least-Noticed Economic Event of the Decade.”

The construction sector

    Of all job sectors, the construction industry appears to have been the hardest hit by the recession.

    “With the liberal underwriting [prior to the recession], the building and construction was going full bore. The recession practically shut those down,” Roeser said.

    Patrie agreed.

    “The construction industry got decimated by the recession and to this day is recovering,” he said. “As it was damaged so heavily, though, it also had the most growth potential and room for recovery.”

    Evidence of restoration can be seen in the last five or so years. From 2013 until 2018, the construction industry in Blaine County increased its hold on the total county workforce from 11 percent to 15 percent, and last year alone, the sector added about 1,070 jobs in Blaine County and saw an increase of 90 employers, from 1,685 to 1,775.

    Roeser said the overall jump in employers and jobs may seem significant, but context is key.

    “Blaine County construction employment once comprised 40 percent of the regional construction jobs—it’s still short 30 percent of full employment in 2006,” she said.

The workforce in 2017-2018

    As the largest supplier of jobs in Blaine County, Ketchum continues to function as the heartbeat of the economy—today contributing around 4,830 jobs to the Blaine County workforce.

    Ketchum had a particularly fruitful year in 2017, adding more than 80 businesses and 180 jobs. Other valley cities saw similar growth that year—Bellevue, for example, saw an addition of about 30 businesses and Sun Valley gained a dozen. Hailey, the next biggest supplier of jobs in Blaine County after Ketchum, added 91 businesses and 204 jobs to its workforce in 2017.

    The solar eclipse may have partly contributed to an increase in tourism that year, Roeser said, as natural events in the Wood River Valley heavily impact business.

    “When there are fires such as the big one in 2013, or something that impacts tourism like a recession—or on a more positive side, an eclipse—we will see the employment in Sun Valley respond accordingly,” she said.  

    In 2018, Sun Valley wasn’t the only town to see an increase in available positions. Carey added 30 jobs between 2017 and 2018, and Hailey added at least 20.

    Despite gains in jobs across most sectors that year, each town throughout the valley experienced a noticeable drop in the number of businesses, implying consolidation. In just one year, Ketchum reported a loss of more than 250 businesses; Hailey lost more than 30; Bellevue lost more than 25; and Sun Valley lost nine.

    From 2017 to 2018, average wages increased to reflect the cost of living. For the leisure and hospitality sector, average salaries rose from around $23,630 to $25,130; for trade, utility and transport jobs, they rose from around $36,415 to $37,705.

    According to the Idaho Department of Labor, the professional and business services category (lawyers, financial consultants, etc.) also saw a loss of 33 employees during this time, and the government sector saw a loss of around 89 employees.

    “It’s a seasonal economy and a small labor market. There were 84 jobs lost when reviewing all four quarters, in seven industries,” Roeser said.

    Those included education and health care (49 jobs lost), manufacturing (32 jobs lost), agriculture/forestry/hunting and fishing (nine jobs lost) and financial services (eight jobs lost).

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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