Rising employment rate in South Lake Tahoe

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

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — South Lake Tahoe resident Mark Cunning, 54, had been 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 as a cook at Burger Stop.

“I had worked with the library and Craigslist for about three weeks before my job here to find a job,” Cunning said. “I had absolutely no chance despite many applications.”

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



“We just helped him out 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 as a cook.



He added that things are looking up for him personally thanks to the current economy.

“I was at a point where you either had to leave the area and find something new or give up,” Cunning said. “I’m not a quitter in any 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 several local positions, including chef at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino.

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

“I’m happy with the opportunity I have at Burger Stop,” Cunning said. “It’s a great place with good food.”

Cunning’s success reflects a change in what California sees as an improvement in South Lake Tahoe’s hiring situation.

The city’s unemployment rate fell to 5.3% in September, based on preliminary data from the California Employment Development Department. The city’s workforce was reported at 11,600. About 600 people were looking for work and 11,000 were employed.

This number, although still preliminary and not adjusted for seasonal work, is an improvement over the same period last year. South Lake Tahoe had an unemployment rate of 7% in September 2014.

California’s overall unemployment rate for September was just over 5.5%.

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

In Nevada, Douglas County recorded an unemployment rate of 6.2% in September, compared to 7% at the same time last year. Nevada’s overall unemployment rate was 6.6%.

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

Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort recently held its annual job fair. According to spokeswoman Thea Hardy, Sierra-at-Tahoe has seen a 65% retention and return rate for its seasonal employees, including many locals.

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

“A lot of people came back to Sierra from years past,” Hardy said. “The number of people coming back is quite high for the ski industry.”

According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, overall employment numbers in South Lake Tahoe are improving from two years ago.Measure for Prosperity report published in October.

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

“The good news is that the rate is 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.”

Drum also said Tahoe Prosperity Center research over the past six months shows there are fewer jobs in the Lake Tahoe Basin as a whole.

Since 2008, when the recession began, South Lake Tahoe has gone from 15,000 jobs to about 11,700 jobs when the Prosperity Center concluded its report. This means South Lake Tahoe has a smaller population as people have moved to work.

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

Although the Tahoe Prosperity Center report does not track the type of jobs (seasonal jobs versus high-paying jobs year-round), there has been a slight shift in the job market.

In 2003, 50% of the Lake Tahoe Basin labor market was related to tourism; in 2013, that number fell to 44%.

“We’re seeing a slight increase in areas like administrative services and management, but we’re not sure what’s driving 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 aim is to find a balance between seasonal jobs and more permanent jobs.

“It’s good 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 I decided to stay and raise a family here; I wanted something more stable.

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