South Lake Tahoe employment rate up |

South Lake Tahoe employment rate up

Jack Barnwell
Mark Cunning prepares a meal at Burger Stop on Emerald Bay Road. Cunning was recently hired as a cook after years of looking for a job.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — South Lake Tahoe resident Mark Cunning, 54, was homeless for more than two years while looking for a job. Following community outreach by Chad Tripp, owner of Bear Bottom Bargains, Cunning was hired on as a cook at Burger Stop.

“I had been working with the library and Craigslist for about three weeks prior to my job here to find employment,” Cunning said. “I had absolutely no luck despite a lot of applications.”

Tripp coordinated an effort to help Cunning, including setting up a GoFundMe account to raise money for a place to live.

“We just helped him and gave him a place to stay,” Tripp said. “He’s a good guy.”

Cunning walked into Burger Stop one day, spoke with the owner, and was hired on as a cook.

He added that things are improving for him personally thanks to the present economy.

“I was at a point where it was either leave the area and find something new or give up,” Cunning said. “I’m not a quitter in any shape or form.”

A skilled chef, Cunning arrived in South Lake Tahoe to help open Marie Callender’s in the mid-1980s. Over the next few decades, he held a number of positions locally, including working as a chef at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino.

Cunning last worked at a local bakery when the economy took a dive.

“I’m happy for the opportunity I have at Burger Stop,” Cunning said. “This is a great place with great food.”

Cunning’s success reflects a shift in what California considers an improvement in South Lake Tahoe’s hiring situation.

The city’s unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in September, based on preliminary data from the California Employment Development Department. The city’s workforce was reported at 11,600 people. Approximately 600 people were seeking employment and 11,000 held jobs.

That number, while still preliminary and not adjusted for seasonal work, is an improvement over the same time last year. South Lake Tahoe presented a 7 percent unemployment rate in September 2014.

California’s overall unemployment rate for September was slightly higher at 5.5 percent.

El Dorado County’s unemployment rate fared better at 4.8 percent in September, down from 6.8 percent the same time last year.

In Nevada, Douglas County reported a 6.2 percent unemployment rate in September, down from 7 percent the same time last year. Nevada’s overall unemployment rate was reported at 6.6 percent.

With winter approaching and the ski resorts either opening or preparing to open for the season, more jobs are expected to be added.

Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort recently held its annual job fair. According to spokesperson Thea Hardy, Sierra-at-Tahoe saw a 65 percent retention and return rate of its seasonal employees, including many locals.

While Hardy declined to give exact hiring numbers, she called it a good sign.

“A lot of people returned to Sierra from years past,” Hardy said. “The number of people returning is pretty high for the ski industry.”

South Lake Tahoe’s overall employment numbers are an improvement over even two years ago, according to Tahoe Prosperity Center’s Measuring for Prosperity report, which was released in October.

Heidi Hill Drum, the executive director, said that the lower unemployment rate reflects a number of things.

“The good news is that the rate is going down, because we were in double digits for many years during the recession,” Drum said. “Because of where we are and because tourism is our No. 1 industry, we are the first to feel an economic downturn and the last to recover from it.”

Drum additionally said Tahoe Prosperity Center’s research over the last six months shows that there are less jobs in the Lake Tahoe Basin as a whole.

Since 2008, at the beginning of the recession, South Lake Tahoe went from 15,000 jobs to approximately 11,700 jobs when the Prosperity Center concluded its report. That means South Lake Tahoe has a smaller population as people moved away for work.

“If you have less jobs, then you have fewer people, and that means lower unemployment rates,” Drum said.

While Tahoe Prosperity Center’s report doesn’t track what kind of jobs (seasonal vs. year-round higher-paying jobs), there’s been slight shift in the job market.

In 2003, 50 percent of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s job market was tourism-related; in 2013, that number dropped to 44 percent.

“We do see an uptick in things like administrative services and management, but we’re not sure exactly what is making the change,” Drum said.

She added that since tourism will continue to drive Lake Tahoe’s economy for the foreseeable future, there will always be a number of low-paying, seasonal jobs. The goal is to find a balance between seasonal jobs and more permanent employment.

“That’s fine for people who want to work at a ski resort and get a taste of Tahoe,” Drum said. “That was me 20 years ago, but as I decided to stay and raise a family here; I wanted something that was more stable.”

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