Employment in Utah’s Seasonal Industries

By Gwen Kervin, Regional Economist

Seasonal employment is temporary work to meet an organization’s interim needs during certain times of the year. This might include businesses that are only open during part of each year, such as ski resorts, or businesses that need extra workers during peak periods, as many retailers do during the holiday shopping season. Most seasonal employment is part-time, though some full-time positions are available. Depending on the employer, the location, and the time of year, a seasonal job might only last a few weeks or continue for several months. Seasonal employment does not include any year-round positions.

Seasonal employment offers benefits to both employees and employers. Industries that offer seasonal employment can provide employees with additional income and skills development. By hiring seasonal employees, employers can fill employment gaps and try out new employees. Examples of seasonal jobs include retail workers hired during the holiday season, restaurant workers hired during the tourist season, or ski resort workers hired during the snowy months. Seasonal industries also contribute significantly to the overall economy. An analysis conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis investigating the value added to the economy from outdoor recreation activities found that snow activities in Utah contributed $601.8 million to the national economy in 2022.

Jobs tied to snow activities employ thousands of people in Utah. At the end of the ski season, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector will fall off. However, the leisure and hospitality sphere is not the only sector that experiences seasonal employment fluctuations. Utah also sees seasonal employment swings in the construction, education, and retail trade sectors as well. The difference between a seasonal and non-seasonal industry is apparent when plotting out a sector’s monthly employment. The graph below shows an example of the different employment patterns seen in a seasonal and non-seasonal industry.

Employment in the educational services sector has a clear seasonal trend, with employment rising in the fall at the beginning of the school year, and declining in the summer months when students are out for a summer break. By comparison, far less seasonality is seen in the healthcare and social assistance sector, which exhibits a less variable, linear trend. 

As Utah’s population and economy has grown, employment in both of the seasonal and non-seasonal industry examples has increased. While both industries have experienced an increase in employment since 2001, the healthcare and social assistance sector has not experienced the same annual ups and downs that were seen in educational services. From January 2001 to January 2022, employment in educational services has increased by 57% and healthcare and social assistance by 118%. This compares to an overall increase in nonfarm employment of 58% for the state. 

However, in Utah, employment in seasonal industries is more sensitive to recessions than employment in non-seasonal industries. Prior to the 2008 recession, Utah employment in seasonal industries (leisure and hospitality, construction, retail trade and educational services) grew faster than that of non-seasonal industries. But, when the recession hit, seasonal industries proportionally lost more jobs. Thereafter, as a group, seasonal industries took longer to recover. A similar response was seen following the 2020 recession. By contrast, in the United States, employment growth in both seasonal and non-seasonal industries declined in the years following the 2008 recession. Although, like Utah, the United States saw a sharper employment decline in seasonal industries following the 2020 recession.

Each of the seasonal industries showed slight differences in how they responded to an economic downturn. Notably, employment in construction dropped significantly following the 2008 recession, only reaching 2007 employment levels in 2019. Moreover, although the sector has seen the largest percent gain in employment since 2001, it makes up a smaller share of total employment in Utah. In August 2007, employment in construction made up 8.8% of total employment in the state. By the time employment in the sector surpassed the August 2007 levels in June 2019, construction made up 7.2% of the state’s employment.

Retail trade and leisure and hospitality, which rely on discretionary spending, dropped off during the last two recessions. Educational services did not see a decline in average annual employment following the 2008 recession, but employment in the sector declined following the 2020 recession due to pandemic-related restrictions. 

Many of the seasonal employment trends are moderated when looking at state-level data, but stand out more when looking at county-level data. For example, the ski season brings large employment swings in the leisure and hospitality sector in Summit County. In 2022, the county’s leisure and hospitality sector employment ranged from 12,451 in February to 8,367 in October, a 4,094 difference. The months that experience the peaks and dips can vary depending on the weather. Garfield, Dagget, Grand, Wayne, Kane and Rich counties also see significant swings in employment in the leisure and hospitality industry, but their increases happen in the summer months as people flock to these county’s natural attractions. 

Moreover, since much of the state’s retail trade employment is located in Salt Lake County, that sector shows a clear seasonality trend in Salt Lake County that is not seen in smaller counties. In 2022, 41% of the state’s employment in the retail trade sector was located in Salt Lake County.  During the 2022 holiday shopping season, employment in the retail trade sector in Salt Lake County rose to 77,562 in November 2022, as employers hired additional workers to address heightened holiday shopping demand. By January 2023, it had fallen to 73,870. Similarly, while construction activity falls off in the colder, snowier months in Utah’s northern counties, the same is not seen in warm-weather Washington County. However, since counties like Salt Lake and Utah employ far more construction workers, construction activity statewide still shows a noticeable seasonal pattern.

For the most part, these seasonal industries pay a lower average weekly wage than the overall statewide average. The notable exception is the construction industry, which paid an average weekly wage of $1,322 in 2022, compared to a statewide average of $1,208. Retail trade, educational services, and leisure and hospitality all had lower average weekly wages.

Many workers take seasonal jobs to increase their earnings, and these jobs are often not a worker’s primary job. When a worker holds two jobs, the primary job is considered the one with the highest earnings. Moreover, those seeking seasonal employment are often younger workers taking on a second job out of necessity. Younger workers are also less likely to have acquired the skills to demand higher wages. A 2021 report studying multiple job holders in Utah found that 6% of the state’s workforce holds more than one job, and educational services, leisure and hospitality, and retail trade are among the industries with the largest percentage of workers with a second job. 

Ultimately, seasonal employment allows workers to earn additional income, but these jobs tend to be more sensitive to broader economic trends – increasing in good economic cycles and decreasing in bad cycles. However, as labor markets tighten and employers have a harder time finding workers, they will likely increase wages and hold onto seasonal workers rather than laying them off after the season, providing higher earnings and more stable employment for workers.