SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The members of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance know a lot can be learned from local businesses. So the Alliance is on a quest to hear what is on businesses’ minds. What challenges they face, the best things about working here, regulatory challenges, how they recruit employees and what it’s like doing business in the county.
The organization’s business-outreach efforts started this summer and the Alliance released its first round of results this month. The findings and recommendations from surveys with 59 county businesses range from government permitting efficiency to workforce-training programs.
The survey analyzed which businesses grew and gained employees versus those that lost employees since the recession, as well as where they were located.
Companies in Bayfield appeared to be struggling the most. Of the four Bayfield companies surveyed, none had hired new employees, and three quarters had reduced their staff since the recession.
Much of that seems to be the nature of businesses in Bayfield, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the alliance. Many are in the construction or natural-gas industry, which have been hit hard in recent years.
The survey results also show companies in general are slower to hire and slower to fire employees in response to economic rises and dips. When business starts looking good, companies take their time in hiring on new employees. But they are also more reluctant to let employees go when business starts to go south.
Stories of problem solving
While companies continue have difficulties finding the right employees for specific jobs, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, some have created ways to get around the problem, the report said.
One way is through internal development where companies hire employees at entry-level positions and then train them internally to move up the ladder to higher management jobs.
Glenn Lathrop, the “chief bean” at Desert Sun Coffee Roasters, said all of the company’s employees have “started from the bottom up.”
Lathrop said internal development at Desert Sun, one of the companies the Alliance surveyed, isn’t formalized, but he does hire employees with the hope and expectation that they will stick with the company as it grows.
“It’s part of the company mentality: You can grow with the company and climb the ladder,” Lathrop said.
Such a strategy also is more affordable, he said.
“We’re a pretty small business with only four of us here, and we are trying to grow,” he said. “The challenge always becomes wanting a general manager or sales manager but not being able to afford a person who brings 10 years of experience to the position.”
Allowing new employees to grow into higher-level positions also means they gain a deep understanding of the company on the way, Lathrop said.
Other companies have sought partnerships with educational institutions such as community colleges to train their employees, Zalneraitis said.
One example is the recently established collaboration between Southwest Colorado Community College and GCC Energy, owner of the King Coal II mine near Hesperus.
The college will tailor training courses for the company’s employees and plans to create mobile learning labs that can teach employees at the mine site.
Several businesses mentioned the idea of a test kitchen as a way to foster food-related businesses in the county. An industrial test kitchen would be open to culinarily-inclined startups that may not have the capital or the steady market demand necessary to create and support a professional kitchen of their own yet.
Jeff Vierling, co-owner of the endurance sports drink company Tailwind, said a test kitchen would be helpful for businesses like his to get off the ground.
A commercial-grade kitchen is a “significant investment when (a company is) still in the stage of testing the market and making sure there is a market for their product,” Vierling said. “Durango is kind of a hotbed for food products, but having a kitchen is a big hurdle.”
With its first report almost finished, the alliance will continue to survey businesses with a goal of talking to 50 or 60 businesses next year.
But with about 5,000 businesses countywide, the organization has a ways to go.