Good job numbers, but not for RVers

The jobs numbers out on Friday resulted in great giddiness in some quarters and foreboding in others. Giddiness because January’s 3.4% unemployment rate is the lowest the U.S. has seen since 1969, giving the lie to the nihilistic doomsayers who would have us believe we’re on the verge of economic collapse, the better to advance their agenda of more tax breaks for the rich. Foreboding because of the fear that low unemployment will push up wages, increasing inflationary pressures and possibly prompting more interest rate increases, finally pushing us into the recession that, yes, the nihilistic doomsayers keep predicting.

So which is it: Let the good times roll? Or hunker down for the coming storm?

For starters, it’s telling that the low unemployment numbers were coupled with news that the U.S. added 517,000 jobs in January, or almost three times most economists’ expectations. This increase was all the more startling because it was announced in the context of enormous—and enormously publicized—layoffs in the once high-flying tech sector, totaling more than 66,000 thus far in 2023. Yet that very contrast suggests why inflationary fears due to a strengthened labor market are overblown: the people getting laid-off are making multiples of what the new jobs are offering. As an economy, for the most part we’re trading high-paying jobs for low-paying ones.

Indeed, drill down into the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics establishment survey for January and you’ll find that employment gains were strongest at the butt end of the wage scale, in leisure and hospitality, up by 128,000 jobs. In other words, for every high tech worker making a six figure salary who lost his job, two jobs paying significantly less than the median wage opened up. And guess what? The month’s average hourly earnings for all employees on private, nonfarm payrolls rose a grand 10 cents an hour, or 0.3%. That means average hourly earnings for the past 12 months posted a total increase of 4.4%, which not only is not inflationary but isn’t even keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

But there’s more. Despite that 128,000 pop in leisure and hospitality jobs, employment in this sector still remains significantly below the pre-pandemic level three years ago this month, by 495,000 jobs, or 2.9%. Moreover, if you break down the leisure and hospitality category into its component pieces, the food services and drinking end of things—primarily restaurants and bars—claimed the lion’s share of the job gains, while accommodations gained a mere 15,000 or so.

Where do campgrounds and RV parks fit in all this? There’s no definitive way to answer that, because the sector is such a small piece of the overall pie that BLS can’t spit out meaningful numbers. But with “accommodations” being inclusive of hotels, motels, resorts and other transient lodging significantly larger than the campground industry, it’s fair to assume that very few of those employment gains are trickling down to your favorite RV park.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence—which, alas, is all we have—is that the labor shortage afflicting the campground industry for the past three years continues unabated. High-end properties that can afford decent wages may be fully staffed, and mom-and-pop campgrounds that can be operated by just one or two couples are getting along. But the vast middle between those two extremes is hurting for employees, and RVers this year will feel the consequences: more automated check-in procedures and less human contact, dirtier bathrooms and cabins, more unkempt grounds and fewer activities.

Of course, it doesn’t help that many of these campgrounds, snatched up by absentee investors trying to maximize returns, continue paying wages that haven’t kept pace with the pay scales at fast-food restaurants and big-box stores. (That’s the other part of the equation that often gets omitted when people fret that higher wages will cause more inflation: the alternative is to reduce profits—but what am I saying?) Campground jobs, because they involve so much interaction with the outdoors, are among the dirtiest and most physically demanding in the accommodations sector, but RV parks are still offering $14 an hour for housekeepers or $15 an hour for maintenance workers. Good luck with that.

Bottom line, the new job numbers are (mostly) good news for the economy, but mostly irrelevant for the campground sector. So no rational need for hunkering down (“rational,” because it’s folly to underestimate the role of irrational actors), but if you’re heading out to a campground this summer, best be prudent and pack adequate cleaning supplies and tick spray.

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Housing squeeze pressures RV parks

As worries about rising inflation grow more widespread, the most obvious remedy is rarely mentioned: provide more things for people to buy. And one of the most obvious “things” in short supply is affordable housing.

Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods, so a common government response when inflation heats up is to rein in the money supply. Money, after all, is something over which government has the most direct control. But an alternative response is to increase the supply of goods. That’s harder, because the government’s influence on goods production is more indirect, but it almost certainly is the healthier response overall.

What brings this to mind is the appalling–and growing–shortage of affordable housing in the U.S. The National Association of Relators this month said the nation is short 6.8 million housing units, due to a 20-year-long slowdown in housing construction, and most of what’s being built is on the high end of the market. The steady decline in housing construction feeds into a vicious circle, in which fewer people–especially including retirees–can afford to move, so they stay put. Then, when changing business or economic trends require workers to relocate, the housing available to them is both over-priced and in short supply.

A leading example of this phenomenon, ironically, is Elkhart, Indiana, in and around which more than 80% of all U.S. RVs are manufactured. Last month, Elkhart was tagged by The Wall Street Journal and as the nation’s “best emerging housing market,” which is investor-speak for “get in now because prices are about to go through the roof.” Indeed, with a median price for houses of just $232,250, the local housing market is starting from a relatively low base–while the booming RV construction industry means demand for additional workers, and therefore for additional housing, is high and going higher. Indeed, as one local reporter noted this month, “almost two-thirds of the buyers in the Elkhart area were not locals.”

While prices for Elkhart housing have started exploding, the economic engine behind much of that growth–the RV manufacturing industry–is likewise in high gear, on course to crank out a record-breaking 600,000 or so units this year alone. Those recreational vehicles, in turn, are being snatched up not just by that segment of the public that puts the emphasis on “recreational,” but by that segment of the public that can’t find, or can’t afford, conventional housing.

So, for example, Austin, Texas, is facing a housing squeeze in part because Tesla has moved its headquarters there and also is nearing completion of a “gigafactory” that will employ up to 10,000 low- and middle-skill workers. Paid an average of less than $50,000 a year in a city where the average home price is now $525,000, those workers also will be scrambling to find an affordable place to live–and the area’s trailer courts and RV parks are gearing up to accommodate at least some of them. One predictable outcome: the cost of staying in an RV park will be bumped up considerably.

Such housing price inflation is a nationwide phenomenon, not confined just to Elkhart or Austin, and is indicative not of too much money but of inadequate supply. Increasing the supply of middle-income housing would not only meet people’s basic need for shelter at a cost they can afford, but would relieve the pressure on recreational facilities that never were intended to be this century’s version of Hoovervilles.

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