The Service Sector: Is Clark County overloading or catching up?

Nearly one-third of new jobs last year came in leisure and hospitality

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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The Port of Vancouver officially signed a lease for a new hotel near the Columbia River two weeks ago, affirming plans to add yet another eating, drinking and lodging establishment to the burgeoning waterfront.

After construction companies complete its 150 rooms and at least one restaurant, the hotel management company will hire a team of 80 to run it. It will take its place in a skyline of new mixed-use buildings, as hundreds of millions of dollars pour into the waterfront’s redevelopment.

The flurry of construction is well-documented, but the hunt for hotel and restaurant workers to staff these projects has been just as voracious this year, according to the latest employment data.

About one in three jobs created in Clark County in the last year came in the leisure and hospitality sector, which encompasses jobs from baristas to bartenders and hotel receptionists to housekeepers. With the construction of more restaurants and hotels in high gear, the growth of that sector, and its workforce, doesn’t look poised to pause any time soon.

Hotel pipeline

August is already a particularly busy month at the Heathman Lodge. The rustic-looking lodge has been one of the most popular stays in Vancouver since it opened in 1997.

It’s been getting even busier, though. As more people visit the Portland metropolitan area, travelers are finding their way north of the Columbia River. Extra hands are being brought in for the summer.

“We’re always doing hiring in the summertime, pretty much regardless of what our staff looks like” going into the season, said Justin Bleth, the lodge’s director of rooms. “We’ve always got somebody new coming in. I meet a lot of new faces.”

According to the state Employment Security Department, hotels and motels added about 550 jobs in Clark County from June 2016 to June 2017. Bleth noted Heathman Lodge now employs about 150, though he couldn’t specify how that changed over the years.

The demand for more workers hasn’t gone unnoticed by potential workers.

“There has been a lot of interest,” said Cary Craig, marketing director of the International Air and Hospitality Academy, whose hospitality program will return this October after a course overhaul started in 2015. “In the past, just about every one of our graduates were hired even before they finished the program.”

The International Air and Hospitality Academy is one of three local organizations, including Washington State University Vancouver and the Cascadia Technical Academy, with hospitality and restaurant training.

“It’s exciting, and it’s our job to share that with the students so they see it as a promising career and the area of growth that it is,” said Jill Neyenhouse, assistant director at Cascadia Technical Academy.

There surely will be more jobs to fill. Including the Port of Vancouver’s project, there are three upscale hotels slated to open at the south end of downtown Vancouver over the next three years.

Restaurants booming

Restaurants have been teeming with business in Clark County, and more are opening. State data shows that the number of local restaurants has grown 14 percent since 2009, and the workforce has climbed 23 percent.

The Employment Security Department data encompasses all restaurants, from fast-food joints to fine dining, and any part-time or full-time worker.

Retail centers have rejuvenated their shops’ appeal by surrounding them with more places to eat. Historic buildings in downtown Vancouver are being readapted for restaurant use.

“There have been a bunch of new restaurants,” said Scott Bailey, the department’s regional labor economist.

That rosy data actually understates the trend. Ilani Casino Resort opened in April with nine new restaurants. As employees of the Cowlitz Tribe, however, its 1,000 employees are all classified as local government workers.

Ilani expects to open a Tom’s Urban restaurant in September, with 80 employees, followed by a 12,000-square-foot events center. There are plans to build a hotel in a couple of years.

“This is certainly a growing market and we’re proud to be a part of that,” said Kara Fox-LaRose, president and general manager. “We know there is competition, and our success certainly depends on our team members.”

Service life

Though the hospitality sector in Clark County is booming, by some measures it is just catching up.

Clark County’s accommodations and food services subsectors make up just 8.1 percent of all jobs. That’s considerably less than the 8.9 percent of all jobs in the Vancouver-Portland metro area, or the 9.4 percent across the nation, according to Bailey.

“They’re not a huge part of our economy,” he said, noting that Clark County employs many more people in health care, construction and real estate. The demand for these jobs is hard to pinpoint, he said, because of the county’s economic bleed into Oregon.

Despite the increased demand, wages have stagnated. From 2009 to 2016, the median hourly wage for food service fell from $13.13 to $12.26. Hotel workers in the same time frame saw hourly wages rise slightly from $11.25 to $11.97.

“We’ll see how this changes as the minimum (wage) gets stepped over the next couple years,” Bailey said.

Still, visitor spending seems to be on the rise, which would benefit both hotels and the restaurant industries. Travel spending in Clark County rose from $349.9 million in 2010 to $453.7 million in 2015, according to the Washington Tourism Alliance.

Eric Hovee, a Vancouver-based consultant who has worked on market studies for projects such as Skamania Lodge and the Spokane Convention Center, said the job growth speaks to an uptick in demand to travel through Clark County. He said there are both new attractions, such as wineries and the casino, that appeals to local consumers and leisure travelers, as well as more business travelers.

“One, there is probably more casual travelers looking for lower-cost options on a West Coast excursion than staying in properties in Portland,” Hovee said. “Second, I think it reflects well on the growing maturation of Clark County business space, with more people recognizing attractions here, including Ilani and other kinds of business development within the community.”