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Region 9 Economic Development project manager views future of Southwest Colorado’s economy as ‘glass half full’

Heather Otter discusses the advancement of career and technical education and its positive impact on the region
Heather Otter is economic development project manager for Region 9 Economic Development. (Courtesy of Region 9 Economic Development)

During the latest Southwest Colorado Economic Outlook, labor shortages were a large part of the discussion.

A combination of high housing costs and a low unemployment rate have created a dilemma for Southwest Colorado employers in terms of hiring.

The Durango Herald sat down with Region 9 Economic Development project manager Heather Otter, who compiles much of the data for Region 9’s livable wage reports among others, to discuss the issues the region is facing and what employers can do to find labor.

Q: Why are employers struggling to find labor in this region?

A: When I look at data, I tend to look sort of what’s happening nationally and what’s happening at the state level, and then does our area track with that or not?

One of the things that our area does seem to track with is that certain industries, for example, are experiencing difficulty in retention, or attraction of employees.

For example, health care nationally, we see that in the recent past, one in five health care related employees are leaving the profession altogether, or they’re leaving it to go to another employer, in health care, and primarily we see this in hospital settings. And that directly affects rural areas, like ours, where we have regional hospitals.

So we’re seeing a similar trend here in the Southwest, where our regional hospitals are seeing about that same percentage … To mitigate that, for example, Southwest Memorial Health System in Cortez has really focused in on their recruitment and hiring and retention efforts.

Q: How can employers incentivize workers to take a position with them or relocate for a position?

A: One of the things that is lucky for Southwest Colorado is that we are still able to attract people because of quality of life. So for our employers, what we are seeing is there is a built-in benefit of quality of life, so the access to the outdoors and all of the fun and play that goes with that here in Southwest Colorado.

I would say in addition to that flexibility, a couple of trends that we’re seeing also nationally statewide, and are reflected here is that, like from 2022 to 2023, we were seeing that migration to or out of state … The states that had higher household higher household incomes, we saw more of those moving to areas that had on average, lower household incomes. Now, part of that we believe is related to job flexibility.

So now that there is an environment where not everybody is required to commute to an office every day and can work everywhere else, people are looking for ways to make their dollars go further. This is combined with, for example, the rise in the cost of living throughout the country.

It’s encouraging people to take advantage of workplace flexibility. So I do think that that’s going to be an incentive that our employers, as well as employees, throughout the state and throughout the nation, will be able to use as an incentive.

Q: There seems to be a lack of entry level jobs that are in particular career pathways. Are people who are maybe trying to look to actually start pursuing a career are struggling to find that entry level job?

We do some of our key industries in the area … the tourism industry, being one, and tourism includes lots of things. So that’s kind of a broad category.

But in addition to health care, in addition to retail and services, when you think about entry level in things like education and health care, there has been a larger exodus from those particular careers or career paths. And so, that may be affecting the ability to bring (in jobs), even though there are entry level positions available.

Those particular industries have experienced more employees leaving, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. So, that may take a while to rebound.

When you think about the industries I would call care-taking industries, where it’s person to person, like education and nursing, I think that we are still seeing lower levels of applicants, lower levels of the ability to retain those employees.

But interestingly, health care is one of the fastest growing industries across the nation. And so typically, we’ll see that the jobs available in health care is one that does tend to pay a little higher.

If you look at our region, typically the positions that are open are in our hospitals or clinics, and those will start at a higher pay than our schools …

But (an area) we’re feeling it very acutely here in Southwest Colorado (is) housing. I know I say it a lot right now, which is we can't talk about workforce without talking about housing. I wouldn’t have said that six or seven years ago.

So for example, in the Southwest, we still have a lack of housing stock. So right now, if we look at between 2022 and 2023, every one of our municipalities and counties showed a decrease in the housing stock, and these are houses for sale … It also showed an increase in price. There were only two municipalities that didn’t show a housing stock decrease, and that was the town of Dolores and the town of Mancos over the past year.

So when you think about workforce, homes are where the jobs go to sleep at night. And so, we have to talk about these two things together …

We have major efforts going on across the region to address workforce housing. Almost every community has begun diligent and strategic planning to mitigate the issue. But as you know, that doesn’t happen overnight. So, it may be a couple of years where we see the housing stock starting to level up, then we have the ability to attract people to jobs.

Q: Is the solution as simple as just creating more housing density?

A: Well, I’m not sure about that. Because we can see that you can have developments with higher density than what is typical in our area, and I’m just talking about the West, where historically, people like space, so you see many more single family homes, sometimes on acreage.

And so, density is not as common in our area. And you can have density, but they can still be high end and quite expensive … just because it’s dense, doesn’t mean it will be more affordable.

Now, again, we’re going to see how this levels out over the next couple years, as our communities are addressing workforce housing …

Q: There’s a negative perception about the economy, at least with young people. What does future economic outlook look like in the region?

A: It probably depends on who you talk to. I’m a glass half full person, so I am optimistic about it.

But I say that knowing that we have a lot of work to do in order to keep our 18- to 35-year-olds here … So again, that’s another area of concerted effort across our communities. And one of the big areas of focus right now is looking at career pathways …

From the state level, and then here in our region, there is a lot of resource, talent and time going into postsecondary and school-to-work initiatives. We can see the seeds of that with the Impact Center here at Durango High School. That’s an initiative that is happening in several areas in the southwest to help bring interest level and career connected opportunities to kids and get it to them at a younger age.

Getting it inculcated in, let’s say, middle school and then really (focusing) on it for courses and internship possibilities in high school, then giving them space like the Impact Center for hands-on type work, recreating a medical office or other such opportunities …

We’re expanding the definitions of CTE to include many industries. In my day, CTE meant automotive, wood shop or welding.

Now, we’re not limiting the students’ choices for what they’ll do after school … If they’re doing CTE, it can include technology, health care. It can include business and entrepreneurship.

The intent is that the choices are endless here.


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