CODY — As the summer tourist season heats up in Cody and other gateway communities around Yellowstone National Park, some employers are reporting unprecedented difficulties in filling seasonal jobs.
"I don't know why it's such a problem this year, but it most certainly is," said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers' Association in Cody.
"The last couple of years, it's kind of been an issue, and you could see what was coming. It was getting more difficult to find people," said Hodson, whose organization represents more than 120 dude ranch owners, including about 20 in the Yellowstone region.
The seasonal nature of employment at dude ranches, hotels, restaurants and other hospitality sector businesses has always presented a challenge in finding cooks, dishwashers, wait staff and housekeepers.
"This year, more than recently, I am hearing that it seems like no one is out there wanting to fill these positions," Hodson said.
Finding staff for many entry-level positions is tough across the state, where a booming energy sector has unemployment rates well below the national average.
Even large local employers like Wal-Mart are feeling the summer hiring crunch.
"Summertime is always difficult, just because of the huge spike in sales and traffic from tourism," said John Dickson, manager of the Cody Wal-Mart. "It's always more difficult to hire enough people, with lots of competition from other people hiring."
Hospitality employers also struggle with the need to find employees who will commit to a full summer, and with the challenge of keeping workers happy in remote places with little access to shopping, entertainment or even cell phone and Internet service.
Some employers are recruiting from outside the U.S., hoping the prospect of a summer in the West will appeal to young workers looking for adventure.
"We've had a lot of luck with that," said Heidi Flaharty, co-owner of the UXU Ranch east of Yellowstone. She said the ranch employs students and young people from Europe in jobs like waiting tables and cleaning cabins.
"They're very service-oriented and work hard, and the guests seem to be intrigued by it," she said.
Flaharty said the ranch had been advertising for a dishwasher for weeks without results, and she has heard of similar problems from other ranch owners.
Dede Fales, co-owner of the nearby Rimrock Ranch, said she typically has filled positions without advertising, relying only on local referrals, but this year has been especially difficult.
"People don't seem to come by looking for jobs like they usually have," Fales said. "We're also working a lot of younger kids than we used to. There are less college-age kids interested."
Employees returning from prior seasons make up a large portion of Rimrock staff, Fales said.
"It's a great summer job. It puzzles me why I don't have more kids from Cody or Powell wanting a job," she said.
Dude ranches pay up to $1,000 a month, with some ranches including housing and meals. Ranch owners typically use tips as an incentive to retain employees, splitting tip pools among those who finish a month or the summer season.
For Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which manages hotels, restaurants and other properties in Yellowstone and parks around the country, many employees are people who want to work in a premier outdoor playground.
"You can do a dishwashing job or room attendant job anywhere in the country," said Chuck Howe, head of recruiting for Xanterra. "But here, you can actually experience the park in a large amount of your leisure time, so we try to market that to potential employees."
With a peak summer payroll of up to 2,500 workers, Xanterra also recruits internationally, particularly during the shoulder seasons.
But even with employee perks like free tours, cheap backpack and equipment rentals, and allowances for housing and food, there's one frequent request that Human Resources Director Beth Casey is struggling to meet.
"Probably the question we get asked the most is about Internet access," she said. "We've done a lot to cover that in the last two years, and we're working to provide computers and Internet access in most of the dormitories in the park by the end of this year."
Bartender Topher Reimers has worked six years in Yellowstone during summer and winter seasons. He said the six weeks off between seasons gives him a chance to travel or visit family, but the real attraction is the park.
"I just really love the park," said Reimers, who was referred by a friend who had worked in Yellowstone. "It's the best backyard you could ever want, with 2.2 million acres, and you don't even have to mow the grass."
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