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Utah unemployment drops to 2%, but underemployment still looms in Summit and Wasatch counties

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The Utah Department of Workforce Services announced this week an estimated 2% statewide unemployment rate in March. While that number may sound encouraging, local businesses are worried about finding enough employees this summer.

Utah’s estimated 2% March unemployment rate is over 1.5 points lower than the national rate and has been steadily declining from an all-time high of 10.1% in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses across the country.

The Department of Workforce Services says that means about 33,400 Utahns are out of work. The report also says the state’s job market grew by 4%, adding over 62,000 new jobs.

But as unemployment rates continue to drop, businesses in Summit and Wasatch counties have struggled to fill jobs.

Restaurants and other businesses have been chronically short-staffed over the last year and staffing shortages at local ski resorts even forced terrain closures during a surge in COVID cases in January.

County-specific data won’t be released until later this month, but Summit County Economic Development Director Jeff Jones says the challenge in the coming months will be getting more young people into the local workforce, especially as the summer tourism season approaches and seasonal jobs are in high demand.

“I think the big question moving forward [is] how successful, not only our region, but other regions in the country will be at pulling people from the sidelines back into the labor market," says Jones. "That’s really where the action is.”

Jones says high school- and college-aged workers are crucial to filling many of the most needed positions in the county like recreation staff and restaurant workers.

In the most recent county report, Summit County reported a 2.3% unemployment rate in February, while Wasatch County’s was 2.2%.

Heber Valley Office of Tourism Executive Director Dallin Koecher says Heber is more of a summer resort destination than a winter one.

He says Wasatch County will likely see a greater labor pinch later this spring and into the summer as people travel to the county for outdoor recreation opportunities. Although he says it’s concerning to think of all the jobs that need filling this summer, the local businesses he’s talked to are ready to face whatever the future has in store.

“To be quite honest, I haven’t heard much pessimism, but at the same time, I haven’t heard much optimism either," he says. "If I were to characterize it, it’s this wait-and-see attitude. Let’s see what’s coming next. It’s hard to prepare for, it’s one of those things that these businesses haven’t really been saying things like ‘Oh man, we’re in dire straits,’ but it’s more of this wait and see what changes and make adjustments as necessary.” 

Jones says long term labor trends are hard to predict in the Wasatch Back, but he does expect the labor market to strengthen in the immediate future.

“Just as a forecast for the year ahead, I think that the labor market will improve the next quarter and will improve again the following quarter, but of course, everything could change depending upon recession or some other major event that would upset the applecart," Jones says.

Employment data for Wasatch and Summit counties is expected to be released as early as next week.