Durango Public Works, which plows snow, repairs damaged water lines, rolls out the city’s Spring Cleanup program, and performs recycling and garbage collection, is gaining ground on filling out its teams.
The public works department struggled with staffing during the winter when qualified snowplow drivers were in short supply and Southwest Colorado was experiencing its wettest winter since 2019. But thanks to recruiting efforts, including several job fairs with at least one more to go, things are starting to turn around.
Allison Baker, public works director, said she is no labor market expert, but from her perch in public works it appears the city may be turning the corner on staffing challenges that became present post-COVID-19.
In December, the city had five open streets positions available, which require applicants to have or obtain commercial driver’s licenses for snowplowing and other street maintenance activities. But as of Thursday, Baker said the division is either now fully staffed or one hire away from being so.
Now, the city is shifting its attention to staffing utilities roles. Specifically, the public works department is looking to hire several collections and distribution technicians. Technicians are the men and women one might see on the streets of Durango when a water pipe bursts under north Main Avenue, she said.
“So serious hard work and a lot of equipment,” she said.
She said public works encourages applicants to have CDL’s when they apply, but it isn’t a requirement for as many roles in utilities maintenance like it is for street crews. Applicants who do have a CDL certainly have a leg up over the competition, she said.
The city has hosted several job fairs, the most recent being about six weeks ago at Fort Lewis College, in its search for technicians. The job fairs have proved useful in making hires, she said. The city is in the process of making offers to two applicants who attended the last job fair.
Baker said she’ll consider recruitment efforts a true success if those two hires are completed.
“That would be real progress,” she said.
Other technician hires were made internally with promotions given to existing employees, she said.
“We had some upper-level folks that had departed and there were promotions from our entry level folks up to crew leader and things like that opened up these positions,” Baker said. “And so we are looking to fill them and have a few more left.”
The city isn’t struggling to keep up with water line repairs, and the number of breaks it has dealt with so far this year is around average. But having a full staff makes it easier on crews and administrators in terms of scheduling and getting workers appropriate paid time off, she said.
“A wet year can be a problem but (it) has not impacted our frequency (of repairs) right now,” she said. “So we look at it as just a general practice to maintain full staffing just because it gives us more scheduling flexibility.”
Public works is also exploring an opportunity – possibly with Fort Lewis College – to recruit summer interns. It could be a chance for students and young adults to gain valuable work experience in environmental engineering and other relevant subjects, she said.
The need for more snowplow drivers was the biggest concern for Baker and the streets division over the winter, but now that spring has settled in and the snow has melted, there is still plenty to keep crews busy.
In late March to early April, street crews repaired 276 potholes in two days. And there is no shortage of more potholes to fill and keep crews busy, she said.
“With the winter being as wet as it was with as much moisture, the potholes this year required a lot of initial attention,” she said. “We'll be continuing that work as we wrap up Spring Clean Up here in the next week or so.”
Road striping is another big project for street crews in the warmer months of the year, she said.
“Application of pavement markings. Refreshing all the materials called thermoplastic that are used on crosswalks and things like turn arrows and markings within the lanes,” she said. “We’ll be redoing centerline striping throughout the city. So some edge line and parking striping.”
And, public works is beginning work on capital-improvement projects valued at over $50,000, she said.
“Summer is good. We get a lot done. Good, good work,” she said.