Even as one of the better-paying school districts on the Western Slope, Durango School District 9-R finds it difficult to fill entry-level positions.
Jobs for cooks, bus drivers and custodians go begging, said district spokeswoman Julie Popp.
It’s hard to fill para-professional jobs such as classroom aide or attendant for kids camp, the hours between when school lets out and when mom or dad arrives to pick up junior, Popp said.
“It’s an ongoing problem,” Popp said.
It’s not just entry-level positions that are hard to fill, she said. Certain teaching jobs don’t attract applicants either, Popp said.
“We’re looking for a Spanish teacher at the high school,” Popp said. “We’ve been looking for a culinary-arts teacher for two years.”
The answer to the puzzle could lie in local economics, said Bill Thoenes, a spokesman at the state Department of Labor and Employment.
Economic development experts in his office haven’t observed a shortage of entry-level job applicants statewide, Thoenes said.
Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Coalition, may have put his finger on the problem.
He finds that the principal reasons businesses or organizations can’t or don’t hire locally are the cost of living in Durango and the qualification of applicants, Zalneraitis said.
“I hear this frequently,” Zalneraitis said.
Retail outlets are hesitant to locate in the county without an adequate workforce, Zalneraitis said. Conversely, entry-level workers can’t make it in a community of $1,200-a-month apartments and $400,000 houses.
Employee qualification is the other hurdle, Zalneraitis said.
Overqualified employees won’t stay because they aren’t challenged, he said. On the other end of the spectrum are younger job applicants who underdress, text during an interview (this really happened, he said), speak inappropriately or don’t have the basic skills.
Ignacio School District 11-JT experiences similar trends as 9-R, Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said.
“We’re all right now, but we’re always looking,” Fuschetto said. “We pay less than Durango, and many candidates don’t want jobs in education that last for only nine months.”
Popp said 9-R no longer poaches teachers from other districts after a certain date per an agreement among superintendents. But even though nonteaching employees are fair game any time, entry-level jobs don’t catch the eye, she said.
Unemployment currently is low in La Plata County, but the dearth of applicants for 9-R jobs is chronic, Popp said.
Misty Mathews, director of human resources in Bayfield School District, said finding substitutes to fill in for vacationing or ill employees is her most difficult job.
“Finding bus drivers is probably our hardest job to fill,” Mathews said. “It’s hard to find someone with a commercial driver’s license. We offer CDL training.”
Kelli Ganevsky, director of human resources for La Plata County, said the entry-level ranks have held steady recently.
“There’s been very little turnover,” Ganevsky said. “But we’ve seen a little more movement as the economy improves.”
It’s harder to keep skilled laborers such as equipment operators and mechanics, Ganevsky said. They’re in demand, so they can play the field to a degree, she said.
Where the county has difficulty hiring, Ganevsky said, is at the administrative level – IT jobs and director and assistant director positions.