Tahoe Prosperity Center seeks to enhance ‘workforce ecosystem’ around Tahoe Basin | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe Prosperity Center seeks to enhance ‘workforce ecosystem’ around Tahoe Basin

Claire Cudahy
"Help Wanted" signs are posted at numerous businesses in Tahoe-Truckee.

Housing, wages and opportunity for growth — these are three factors that can determine whether a workforce is thriving or just surviving. And in Lake Tahoe, one local nonprofit has outlined a plan of attack for bolstering these elements with tactics that some South Shore businesses are already finding success with.

The Tahoe Prosperity Center is preparing to release its 119-page report titled “Tahoe Workforce Ecosystem: A Strategy Framework” to the public. The report outlines tactics for addressing employee attraction, development and retention while focusing on workforce housing, economic diversification and wage increase.

“This project kicked off last spring when we did the business walks and interviewed 500 businesses about their issues and needs,” said Heidi Hill Drum, CEO of Tahoe Prosperity Center. “One of my biggest takeaways from this report is that in order to be successful, we need to capitalize on our existing strengths in Lake Tahoe. We’re not creating some completely new initiative or mission.”

The report also highlights the need for a multifaceted approach to strengthening the workforce.

“If all we focused on was raising wages to help people to be able to buy a home in Lake Tahoe, that’s only one aspect of the problem,” noted Hill Drum.

The report breaks the basin down into four sub-regions — South Shore/California, South Shore/Nevada, North Shore/California and North Shore/Nevada — and compiles all of the stakeholders, programs, nonprofits and initiatives that are currently assisting in areas like business development, community education, talent attraction and workforce housing.

The goal, according to Hill Drum, is to tackle issues pertaining to the workforce by sub-region and see how these existing programs can be replicated or expanded across the basin.

“We are at a really exciting time right now where things are starting to happen. We just need to continue down the path,” said Hill Drum. “Sharing the best practices with everyone around the region so we can all learn from each other is going to be a key role for Tahoe Prosperity Center moving forward.”

On the South Shore, a number of business owners have already adapted their practices to help address issues of employee retention and development through wage increases, housing assistance and training opportunities.

Ashley Mattila has owned Marcus Ashley Gallery in South Lake Tahoe with her husband for 13 years. But a few years ago, Mattila noticed that she was losing quality employees.

“There’s a time when I looked at my business partner and my husband and said, we need to have these people. We spend more time together at work with them than we do with our own families, so we need to make them feel successful, and a way of doing that is paying more of a livable wage,” said Mattila. “There was a day when we woke up and said, ‘This is our goal.’”

Mattila has been increasing wages for three to four years now, and said it’s made a difference in her staff turnover.

“There’s not anybody here who makes under $40,000,” said Mattila, who has 22 employees.

Edgewood Tahoe just added 300 employees with the opening of its new lakefront lodge this June, bringing the company’s total to nearly 540 workers, many of whom commute in and out of the basin.

Around 10 years ago the company bought and converted an old motel near Stateline into workforce housing for roughly 40 employees, mainly groundskeepers. After nearly doubling its staffing, it has yet to be seen if turnover due to commuting or an inability to find housing locally will be an issue.

“We hear it. We know housing is a real issue,” said Jack Bellotti, vice president of human resources at Edgewood. “But for us it hasn’t gotten to the crisis level.”

“We offer a competitive package — competitive in wages, competitive in perks,” added Bellotti. “Those type of things are setting us apart from the competition in the community.”

South Shore businessman Ted Kennedy, a partner in a handful of restaurants like Base Camp Pizza Co., AZUL Latin Kitchen, and Lakeside Beach House, employs a different approach to retaining his employees.

“One of our mottos is hire right, train right and treat right,” said Kennedy.

Across the basin in all of his restaurants, Kennedy employs anywhere from 500 to 600 people, but keeping qualified employees on board is still a struggle, especially with the high cost of housing and limited rental availability.

“I think we’re starting to get a reputation for treating people well so that really helps,” said Kennedy.

And part of that treatment includes opportunities for additional certification, as well as investing in the restaurants.

“We provide pathways to ownership within our restaurant group, which is pretty unique for people who want to stay here long-term. They have an opportunity to invest in new restaurants and earn equity over time,” explained Kennedy. “It really clicks with people when they get that first profit-share check.”

Starting next January, supervisors at the restaurants will have the opportunity to take classes at Lake Tahoe Community College paid for entirely by the restaurant group.

“I think we retain more in a town that traditionally has a high turnover rate,” added Kennedy.

It’s ideas like these that Hill Drum and the Tahoe Prosperity Center want to spread around the basin through implementation of the workforce report.

“From our perspective the next step is engagement with each of the four sub-regions, and letting each one of those sub-regions determine what those priority next steps are to having a healthy workforce ecosystem,” said Hill Drum.

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