Local workforce network struggles

Participation low at meetings, organizers say

A year after it began, a local network created to support businesses’ workforce needs is struggling to revive itself in the face of low participation and organizational challenges.

The Workforce Development Network, a branch of the Southwest Colorado Workforce Development Board, was created to connect the region’s workforce center with local businesses.

“We want to know there is a use for (the network),” said Chloe Wiebe, southwest regional supervisor at the Colorado Workforce Center. “Right now it’s kind of on shakey ground. We need to see if we can make it work for our businesses.”

The semi monthly meetings are an opportunity for employers, business leaders, government workers and educators to exchange ideas and share issues and challenges. It’s also an opportunity for businesses to learn more about the workforce center’s services.

The goal is to gain a better grasp of the challenges businesses face and what they need from the workforce center, said Ed Morlan, executive director of the Region 9 Economic Development Network. Morlan was the driving force in creating the Workforce Development Network.

Despite its struggles, the network has gained statewide and national recognition.

Region 9 won a 2011 Innovation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations for its implementation of the workforce network.

From a state perspective, the network provides a model other workforce regions should embrace, said Clarke Becker, director of the Colorado Rural Workforce Consortium, which oversees workforce centers in 52 counties.

“It’s such a great example of an important partnership and a great opportunity to bring business to the table,” Becker said. “There is nothing else exactly like it.”

Workforce officials and business owners agreed the meetings have the right goals, but they are lacking a much-needed boost in awareness and a dedicated group of supporters.

Region 9 has been doing much of the legwork, but that responsibility needs to be shared by more people if the network is to be sustainable, Morlan said.

“There are some concerns about where responsibility lies and how to keep this thing going,” he said.

The meetings draw 10 to 15 people at the most and at the low end attract only two or three attendees besides the workforce board, he said.

Each meeting also includes a different speaker, but it has been difficult to find topics that interest business owners, Wiebe said.

And because the development network’s work does overlap with other business support-oriented groups, the challenge is to find a niche where the workforce network will be helpful, she said.

The network does have a unique connection to the workforce center’s free training and services, but those advantages and resources haven’t been well-advertised, said Ronnie Zaday, chairman of the Southwest Colorado Workforce Board. The board serves a state-mandated advisory role for the southwest workforce region.

Going forward, the workforce board agreed to hold the network meetings less often and solicit business feedback about topics they would find useful at the meetings. Businesses need to see a potential benefit if they are going to get involved in the workforce network, Becker said.

“We would like businesses to get engaged,” he said. “But there needs to be a value add.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com