When you can’t hire employees, buy them housing
You’ve heard it a lot lately—inflation’s high, and so is the number of job openings. In a tight job market, companies across the country have struggled to attract and maintain talent.
For Park City Mountain Resort, offering company-sponsored housing might be the solution to shifting workforce needs.
“Housing availability is essential for the sustainability and vitality of all resort communities, as well as our business,” says Deirdra Walsh, the top executive and operator for Park City Mountain.
Construction began on the project in June 2021. In the 2022-23 winter season, doors will open on the Canyons Village Employee Housing development for 441 Park City Mountain employees. The housing development sits in the Canyons Lower Village, next to the Cabriolet ski lift.
“This prime location ensures convenient access to work, public transportation, and all the wonderful experiences Park City has to offer,” Walsh says. “Mountain resort communities are some of the most desirable places for people to live and work. Because of that, the need for employee housing takes on a unique urgency for the ongoing vitality of the community and the businesses that operate within it.”
This effort to offer employee housing is part of a $30 million commitment made by then-CEO Rob Katz in 2015. The Canyons Village project is the first deliverable on this nearly 10-year-old promise.
“Employee housing, and this project in particular, has been a long time in the making with our partners,” Walsh says.
“We have a disconnect. Wages are not on track with rising housing prices.”
Those partners come from both the public and private sectors. Canyons Village Management Association, Columbus Pacific, and Summit County, Utah, were all involved in signing the five-year lease. Walsh says the resort will continue to aggressively pursue affordable housing opportunities for its employees, both on land it already owns and through leasing existing developments.
“Our housing initiative in Park City was one of four projects,” she says. “While we understand that some of our mountain communities have concerns about new developments, we believe it’s time for us and our communities to make affordable housing a top priority and accelerate the processes to ensure we collectively make progress.”
While “shifting workforce needs” was one of the reasons Park City Mountain decided to make good on the $30 million commitment, recent fluctuations in the labor market didn’t inspire this kind of housing arrangement. In fact, it’s a pretty standard offering, says Ryan Davis, a partner at J. Fisher Companies who oversees affordable housing preservation strategy.
“There’s a historical trend of resorts and other organizations in the hospitality and entertainment industries providing housing for employees,” he says. “Traditionally, it’s for seasonal workers or operational staff, just to aid in their availability and to increase their proximity.”
But in recent years, the housing shortage—especially in Utah—has been exacerbated, making housing less of a perk and more of a necessity.
“We have a disconnect,” says Dejan Eskic, a senior research fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “Wages are not on track with rising housing prices.”
That disparity is made worse by the influx of people moving into the state.
“From 2010 to 2020, two-thirds of our growth came naturally, meaning births minus deaths,” Eskic says. “The remaining 30 percent came from emigration.”
In 2021, that 30 percent nearly doubled.
“Last year was the first where net migration had a higher share of the population growth,” Eskic says. “59 percent was due to migration. But regardless of how you got to the state—if you came in a U-Haul or were born here—you need a place to live and a job to pay for it.”
If your job isn’t offering housing, it’s likely your salary couldn’t cover a mortgage.
“Construction costs have increased substantially,” Eskic says. “Lumber is up by 44 percent, and paint is up by 14 percent over last year. The strain on manufacturers comes from that cost of materials and the cost of labor to build homes.”
That’s why employers offering housing can be so desirable for job-seekers—even if it might be the canary for future labor bubbles.
“The fact that more and more companies are paying for or helping to organize housing situations for employees as a recruiting tool is concerning commentary on the state of the labor market,” Eskic says. “Traveling down the housing rabbit hole doesn’t spark confidence, especially now. But ultimately, for employees, I think the trend of offering housing is a good thing. Given the environment we’re in, I’d be over the moon if my employer paid for my housing.”
If what Eskic says is true, why are companies building housing for employees? Why can’t they use those funds to pay their employees more instead?
Park City Mountain’s answer is simple: Why not both?
“[We also implemented a] new $20 per hour minimum wage for all employees across all 37 of Vail Resorts in North American properties and in corporate,” Walsh says.
Entry-level patrollers and jobs that require specific certifications got raises as well.
“All of this represents an average wage increase of 30 percent across our hourly employees in North America,” Walsh says.
Both efforts—the housing and wage increase—were sparked by employees raising their voices.
“Our goal with all of our wage and housing investments is a fully staffed, engaged, and supported team,” Walsh says. “To achieve that, we needed to do a comprehensive assessment of the full employee experience. We listened, learned, and engaged with our team to understand how to best support them, so they can focus on providing a great experience to our guests.”
Walsh says that the millions of dollars Park City Mountain has invested in these efforts pay off in many ways. It’s not just about offering people a job—it’s about helping them build a life, with or separate from the resort.
“Employee housing can lower the barrier of entry to mountain employment and may be the start of a new career path for future leaders in our company and industry,” she says. “Vail Resorts has a bold leadership and career development philosophy that we are committed to extending to our seasonal workforce. If someone comes for a season, they will have the opportunity to build a career with us.”
"Traveling down the housing rabbit hole doesn’t spark confidence, especially now. But ultimately, for employees, I think the trend of offering housing is a good thing."
While reactive solutions like housing and wage increases can stop the bleeding, administrators at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) are thinking from the preventative side of things. Instead of attracting existing labor, they train them right out of high school.
“In Central Europe, they offer apprenticeship programs for all students,” says Amy Andre, program and development coordinator for Stadler US, Inc. “And through Stadler, American students can have that kind of immersive learning experience, too.”
This is possible through the Salt Lake School District. Along with SLCC, the district partnered with Swiss manufacturing company Stadler to open its first location in the United States.
The youth apprenticeship program—also known as the TRAC model—starts during a student’s junior year of high school and runs for three years until they’ve received an associate degree in advanced manufacturing from SLCC. While still in high school, students clock into work at Stadler every other day.
Once students start pursuing their degrees, they work up to 32 hours a week.
“By the end of their third year with us, they’ve been working almost as much as a regular, full-time employee,” Amy Andre says. “They’re on teams. They’re developing skills, and they can produce things. They’re not interns getting coffee or filing paperwork—they’ve become part of our workforce.”
That’s the case for Gigi Earnest-Stippich, a 2022 West High School grad wrapping up her first year in the apprentice program.
“People on my team have started to come to me with questions about what I’ve been trained on, and I find myself able to answer them comprehensively,” she says.
Of course, just like offering housing, this solution requires a significant upfront investment on the side of the company and the surrounding educational system alike.
“It’s a high-touch program,” says Rick Bouillon, VP of economic and workforce development at SLCC. “It’s not just money Stadler puts into it; it’s time. They’re mentoring these young people, helping them through the early stages of what could be a career. There is an expectation that the students who learn these skills will want to not only stick around in the industry but at their company. They’re playing the long game when it comes to the workforce.”
Not every student who graduates from the youth apprenticeship program is guaranteed a job offer, Bouillon says. But Stadler acknowledges that those in the program have an edge above the rest.
“When hiring, we look to the kids in this program first, even for tangentially-related positions,” says Lucy Andre, chief of staff and general counsel at Stadler. “We’re a big company, and we have a wide variety of jobs. If a student graduates and decides to obtain a finance bachelor’s degree, we’d still want them back at Stadler. Somebody with a great deal of production experience, who knows about order management and procurement processes and has built orders themselves—that’s the perfect candidate for every niche.”
That diversity of opportunity, packaged alongside the training students need to qualify for it, is what Bouillon thinks makes Stadler’s program so compelling for today’s labor market.
“Young people want to know what their future holds,” he says. “There are a lot of different pathways that they can choose from, and one of the keys is not only making sure they’re aware of the types of careers but helping them start one.”
After its kickoff three years ago, Stadler’s Utah program celebrated its first graduating class this summer, and Bouillon expects to see many more.
“The gig economy has really kicked in,” he says. “People are working multiple jobs for flexibility and to pursue their own interests. With partnerships like the SLCC-Stadler program, we want to show people that we’re changing with the workforce. Jobs in this industry can be for anyone.”
And Stadler’s focus is on anyone. Its apprenticeship model was built to be scalable and apply to all kinds of jobs, industries, and people.
“That was the plan from the beginning: Create a generic program that could fit all kinds of situations,” Lucy Andre says. “We see this model as something that could apply to every field, from retail to sales to medicine and finance.”
But first, she recognizes that a mindset shift needs to take place.
“The way we view the purpose of education in America, traditionally, is different than in Europe,” Lucy Andre says.
For Earnest-Stippich, even a year into the program, she’s still met with looks of confusion.
“Apprenticeships aren’t common in the US at all,” she says. “When I tell people I’m an apprentice electrician at a passenger rail manufacturing company, they don’t quite know what to do with that information.”
But Lucy Andre thinks all of that will change. Once people recognize that similar programs exist like this, they’ll get more buy-in from companies.
“A lot of the tenets of apprenticeships are still in schooling here. For example, medical schools have residencies and rotations,” she says. “We’re suggesting doing that kind of process earlier in life.”
“This program is where we put our philanthropic dollars. We want to do this for our community, and we think it’s what workers and employers need right now.”
But for now, student-wise, the program is covered—and then some.
“We’re at capacity,” Amy Andre says. “We used to exclusively recruit with Salt Lake School District, but this last year, we added Davis School District as well. Granite School District has also reached out to us to get involved. Still, we just don’t have enough space in our programs to take on more students.”
But it’s not like every company has turned them down.
“Boeing is very interested in adopting our model,” she says. “So is Qantas, another airline. We might also start a parentship program locally with US Synthetic down in Utah County. Through the help of the Talent Ready Utah and other state programs, we’re hoping that even more industries and companies take an interest in us, too.”
As their scalable model grows in popularity, Lucy Andre says it won’t just benefit Stadler—it’ll be a universal good for our labor market and communities.
“Of course, programs like this get us highly qualified workers, which benefits our business immediately,” she says. “But we have this broader, philanthropic goal of raising the skill level of the community, regardless of if they work for us, our competition, or a different industry entirely.”
The money and time Stadler and its parent company have put into designing these models—and running the first of its kind in Utah—rival what other companies contribute to donations.
“We’re not a company that you’ll see buying a table at every event,” Lucy Andre says. “This program is where we put our philanthropic dollars. We want to do this for our community, and we think it’s what workers and employers need right now.”