The hospitality industry in the North Bay has seen a gigantic growth in jobs, boosting the economy but also presenting a challenge for employers, especially those in Napa, to fill positions.
Of the almost 17,000 jobs added in the North Bay across all industries over the year, more than 1 in 6 jobs were in leisure and hospitality, according to the monthly report from the state Employment Development Department.
Napa County’s tourism-fueled economy added 1,300 hospitality jobs over the last 12 months, while the North Bay’s second-biggest hospitality juggernaut, Sonoma County, gained 900 jobs in that industry.
To put that in perspective, the population of Napa as of 2013 was 140,300, whereas the population of Sonoma County was close to 500,000.
With continued growth expected — including at least 700 more hotel rooms with the next few years — Napa is struggling to come up with ways to draw employees.
“This will be a challenge. The majority of the new hotels’ workforce needs will be back-of-house departments like housekeeping and food production. Most positions in these areas are traditionally low paying, which will make finding employees even more challenging,” said Kelley Hartman, senior vice president field operations at Nelson Staffing. “Parking will also be a challenge if workers need to commute from out-of-town. We have heard that some hotels are already busing in housekeepers from Sacramento, and solutions like this may become even more necessary if pay doesn’t rise to meet the rising cost of living. New workers will not be attracted to the area with minimum-wage jobs.”
Calistoga is especially feeling the pinch. The town’s estimated unemployment rate hovers around 1.6 percent, and close to 60 percent of the workforce commutes.
In the next three or four years, two large luxury resorts will be completed creating as many as 500 new jobs there.
In an effort to bring in workers from other areas, in June the town began an employee shuttle program to lure workers from Santa Rosa. The program was suspended in August, however, due to lack of riders and weak support from businesses to subsidize some of the cost.
“I’m absolutely confident there has to be an employer-supported solution. There’s no way around that,” said Chris Canning, executive director of the chamber, and also the town’s mayor. “The town needs to go where there are employees to draw from, but employers are not at a desperate enough state yet (to support a shuttle).”
Canning spearheaded the project based on similar shuttles for companies like Google. “The employee shuttle was never considered a ‘silver bullet’ but there are not many other solutions,” he said.
The job market in Santa Rosa, like the rest of the North Bay, is healthy, giving residents there no real incentive to drive or be shuttled to Calistoga. And with plenty of jobs in Napa, more affordable housing can be found in nearby cities like American Canyon, Vallejo, and Fairfield.
“A few years ago, employees were very willing to commute from these counties for an opportunity to work in the Napa wine industry,” Hartman said. “With the improved job market in Sonoma and Solano counties, and the long commute coupled with a salary which is not much more than they can make close to home, Napa opportunities to those living outside the area are less desirable than they have been in the past. To make the time and cost of the commute worth it for employees, Napa employers need to offer higher wages — especially if they are located up valley in Yountville, St. Helena, or Calistoga. Lower-wage employees can find positions in their own backyards right now and do not need to endure long commutes.”