CASPER, Wyo. — With at least 1,650 jobs available in Natrona County, what is good for people seeking employment may provide challenges for small businesses.
Some small business owners say that a small workforce pool, rising wages and high warehouse and supply costs make doing business in Casper a struggle.
Wyoming Department of Workforce Services data showed 1,653 job openings in Natrona County as of June 5.
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These factors have led Golden Ticket Concessions owners Jason Booth and Suze Oakes to decide to move their food trailer construction business to Fort Collins.
Booth raised the issue of competing with higher starting wages offered by larger businesses with the Casper City Council during their Tuesday, June 4 meeting.
Booth is not the only small business owner with such concerns.
Amy Lea, U.S. Small Business Administration District Director for Wyoming, said that other small business owners have expressed similar thoughts.
“Around Wyoming, we’ve been hearing this,” Lea said. “One of the great things about Wyoming right now is that people are able to find work.”
When the work force has a lot of options, Lea said that small businesses can sometimes struggle to find and retain employees since they have so many other places they can find work.
Workforce Specialist Mary Orr works at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Workforce Center in Casper and also said that Booth’s concerns are not unique to him.
“From what we’ve seen that’s absolutely true,” Orr said. “A lot of the smaller businesses always have trouble.”
Orr said that there is definitely a lack of skilled workers such as welders and plumbers in Casper.
The average hourly wage for retail workers in Wyoming was $16.45 as of March, according to data provided by Workforce Services.
“Average weekly wage does tend to be higher for firms with more employees,” Workforce Services Research & Planning Editor Michael Moore said in an email.
“For example, in first quarter 2018 (2018Q1), the average weekly wage was $747 for firms with 509 employees, $815 for firms with 20-49 employees, and $1,224 for firms with 250-499 employees. (see Table 2) Keep in mind these wages are for all industries and are not specific to retail trade.”
Moore tried to help locate more detailed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics but said that he couldn’t access that data because it is confidential.
While offering competitive wages are a part of the puzzle, Lea said that’s not the only thing small business owners should be thinking about.
“It’s not always just about starting wage,” she said. “Do [employees] believe in the vision of that company? Do they offer benefits and professional development?”
Lea said small business owners should take a look at their business plan and see if there are things they can do to appeal to workers. One important factor would be to look at whether the business offers long-term opportunities for their workers.
She said that small business owners can succeed despite the challenges. There are also free, confidential, one on one business consultations available to business owners to help them look at such questions.
Such services are available through the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.
The Casper Area Chamber of Commerce also provides services to their small business members to help them post job openings, promote and market their businesses.
“I do feel that there are some organizations able to pay a little bit higher wages,” Executive Director Erin Helms said. “I think our small businesses are able to succeed.”
She pointed to Grant Street Grocery & Market as an example of a small business with a small staff that has seen success in Casper.
She also gave the example of the Rialto Soda Fountain’s June 21 anniversary as the type of thing the Chamber of Commerce can support.
The fountain’s owner Rob Staffig-Piotter said that he’s also had some difficulties finding and retaining staff and offer them competitive wages. However, he said it is a good thing that workers have the ability to find higher starting wages at larger businesses and said that competing with that was just part of doing business.
On Thursday, Booth said that higher starting wages are just one facet of the problems he’s faced finding and retaining quality employees.
He and Oakes said they’ve never started anyone at less than $10 an hour, and they’ve even offered bonuses when business is strong.
But they said some previous employees frequently said they weren’t coming to work, and thought that the plethora of other job opportunities led to workers feeling like they could come and go as they please.
“We went through nine employees,” Booth said.
Booth said that he recognizes starting wages in Fort Collins are likely to be as high, if not higher, than in Casper. But he thinks the larger pool of workers looking to find employment will make it easier to find people to help out.
Another reason they’ll be moving to Colorado is because Booth said warehouse rental fees there are more reasonable than in Casper, saying that quotes he’s received would save his business $1,500 per month.
Booth thinks one of the reason warehouse fees are higher in Casper is due to the local oil industry. He said that warehouses may be willing to leave their space unoccupied, confident that cash-happy oilfield businesses will be willing to pay higher prices.
He also said that the cost of materials like wood, which Booth needs to construct his trailers, is more affordable in Colorado since suppliers offer lower costs in order to out-compete other suppliers.
He said that building material costs are about 20-25% lower in Denver than in Casper.
Despite Colorado having a state tax and higher housing costs, Booth still thinks he’ll save about 15% on costs in Colorado, and if he can find reliable employees will be able to continue to grow his business.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
Booth said that he and Oakes chose Fort Collins because they’re hopeful that Casper can make some changes, at which point, they’d be interested in moving back.
“This town has potential,” Booth said. “I don’t know what to do to fix it.”
For now, Booth is preparing to transport a Disney-themed food trailer down to Grand Junction for a client. It was designed to recall the film “Frozen” and the client plans to sell shaved ice out of the trailer.
The client is planning to call the trailer “Sugar & Ice,” which shares a name with Casper’s “Sugar & Ice” trailer, which Booth also built and Oakes operated before they sold it to a new owner.
Booth was critical of what he called the “good ol’ boy” system in Casper. He said that the City Council and other groups have either lacked an understanding of the value food trucks bring to the community or have intentionally made decisions to benefit established businesses over new ones.
“It’s a town of who you know,” Booth said. “There’s lots of heartache in this town.”