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.

Napa County hotels in development

Hampton Inn & Suites, Napa 115 2016
Las Alcobas, St. Helena 68 2016
Archer Hotel Napa, downtown Napa 183 2017
VieVage Napa Valley, Carneros district 120 2018
Indian Springs Resort, Calistoga 75 added 2016
Four Seasons, Calistoga 85 (20 homes) 2018
Calistoga Hills, Calistoga 110 2018
Total 776
Source: Visit Napa Valley

Annual job gains in August

  • Napa County hospitality: +1,300 jobs, +9.8%
  • Sonoma County hospitality: +900 JOBS, +3.5%
  • North Bay manufacturing (includes wine, food and spirits): +2,100 jobs, +3.9%
Source: California Employment Development Department

August unemployment rates

Sonoma Marin Napa Solano Mendocino Lake
2016 4.1% 3.5% 4.1% 6% 5% 6.3%
2015 4.4% 3.6% 4.2% 5.7% 5.3% 6.8%
Source: California Employment Development Department

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.”

As for more affordable housing in Calistoga, Canning said there is no short-term solution for that.

In St. Helena, where there is also a shortage of qualified workers, Chamber of Commerce President Pam Simpson said the town was eying the Calistoga shuttle, but employers there are also not hard pressed enough to participate yet. However, the Calistoga project could serve as a template, she said.

“We’re open to it, we’re just waiting for employers to get on board,” Simpson said.

Looking a couple of years down the road, when the two new luxury resorts open, Calistoga employers are also concerned about employee retention.

“It happened when Solage opened. A new employer comes to town and offers a different compensation and benefit package and inevitably you’ll see some migration,” Canning said.

Employers who offer the best wages are seeing better retention. With the cyclical and seasonal needs of the wine and hospitality industries that result in fluctuating workforce sizes, retention looks different for these industries than many others.

“Because seasonal workers have more opportunity to switch employers, they may be more likely to seek opportunities each year based on the best compensation instead of being more employer-loyal,” Hartman said. “Those employers who are resistant to raising pay are the ones who’ve experienced the most difficulty with both retention and finding new reliable employees.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.