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SW Colorado economic development officials aim to bolster skilled labor workforce

Some workers’ skill sets don’t match what employers are expecting
There were over 55,000 jobs posted between January 2021 and October 2022, according to data from the La Plata Economic Alliance. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College)

A recent analysis done by La Plata Economic Development Alliance shows there may be skill-set gaps in Southwest Colorado’s workforce.

Fort Lewis College and La Plata Economic Development Alliance have developed a plan to bolster the region’s skilled labor workforce through a series of micro-certifications with the Project Rural Upstart Network, a workforce enablement plan.

The micro-certifications are a series of courses that culminate in a digital badge from an accredited university. This allows employers to find out whether a student is proficient in a certain subject.

“All desirable communities like ours are dealing with the same issues of affordability, which has directly impacted our workforce. Key sectors of our economy are not able to recruit or retain critical roles, so we have to look within,” said Michael French, La Plata Economic Development Alliance executive director, in a news release. “Addressing skill gaps in the existing or potential workforce is a way we can impact those industries.”

Through Opportunity Now Colorado, an $85 million grant program supported by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and HB22-1350, Project RUN won a $1.2 million startup award. The program provides funding for creative workforce solutions that establish purposeful connections between educational institutions and businesses to give local residents a chance to become more economically mobile.

The micro-certifications will be free to participate in, but won’t give the students college credit.

The alliance analyzed workforce trends between January 2021 and October 2022, and a series of focus groups with local employers to identify gaps in the workforce.

The group found that employers have trouble recruiting and retaining high-caliber employees at entry, mid and executive levels of employment.

“It's getting harder and harder to recruit and bring people in,” French said. “It's easier to train people that already live here then try to find housing for people that we bring in from outside the community.”

The analysis also found employees have expectations for wages amid rising living costs, but their skill sets don’t meet the qualifications for jobs they applied for. This has created labor supply issues nationwide.

The state’s average pay for a skilled labor position, which includes jobs where a college degree or trade-based certifications are required, is approximately $21.78 per hour, equaling about $45,000 a year before taxes.

According to Region 9 Economic Development’s 2022 Livable Wage Report, the average salary needed to live in Durango for a single-person is $41,388 per year, meaning more skilled labor positions could allow more residents to afford to live in the area.

Region 9 Economic Development Project Manager Heather Otter said since 2010, there has been a 5.9% increase in the working age population in Region 9, which incorporates La Plata County, Montezuma County, Archuleta County, Dolores County and San Juan County, Colorado. This hasn't necessarily translated into higher workforce participation, though.

“There are many reasons for this including but not limited to mismatch of skills needed to enter certain jobs or industries, reshuffling of workers from in person to remote or lack of child care impacting the ability to enter or reenter the workforce since the pandemic, and the ever-present housing costs and shortages,” Otter said in an email to the Durango Herald on Wednesday.

Housing costs are among the reasons some of these sectors have struggled to maintain employees. FLC Associate Professor of Economics Nate Peach told The Herald in January that first-time homes and apartment complexes were in short supply, making the county an unattractive destination for entry-level employees.

Data from Region 9 Economic Develop District used in Peach’s Southwest Economic Outlook presentation in January showed the number of single-family building permits increased by nearly 200 from 2020 to 2021.

“When I talk to students who are seniors and thinking about what they’re going to do next, housing is part of it,” Peach told the Herald on Tuesday. “If they'd been to the Fort for a few years and they’ve navigated the Durango housing market, they know that they can go somewhere else and pay less.”

Peach said that having this program will allow members of the labor force who are already working to build credentials and enter management positions.

There were over 55,000 jobs posted between January 2021 and October 2022, according to the alliance’s regional workforce analysis. Of those, government, health care and social assistance, construction, professional, scientific and technical services, manufacturing, administrative support and finance were all top 10 regional industries.

“Tackling labor shortages and employee retention issues means exploring solutions appropriate for specific industries or employers,” Otter said. “No one size fits all solution exists, however, collaborations like the one between Fort Lewis College and the Economic Alliance are a solid step in the right direction for addressing the workforce needs in Region 9.”

Registered nurses, customer service representatives, wholesale manufacturing representatives, retail representatives, sales representatives and administrative assistants are among the top 10 occupations listed, totaling over 1,000 job postings.

Health care workers in La Plata County have been in strong demand since the height of COVID-19. Both FLC and Pueblo Community College have been trying to help build the health care workforce pipeline because of the strain put on the health care profession in Southwest Colorado.

This fall will be the first time FLC will offer a four-year nursing degree in collaboration with Colorado University-Anschutz. PCC Southwest also received accreditation to offer a four-year degree in nursing this summer.

Peach said he foresees this program benefiting members of the health care workforce because they can go from just having a nursing degree to potentially have business or finance credentials.

“Things like that can go a long way in that sector for people who want to get into management versus the actual delivery of care,” he said.

FLC President Tom Stritikus said in a news release the college’s goal is to strengthen the workforce by offering certificate coursework opportunities, adding it’s key to “serve regional students by meeting them where they are in their academic and professional endeavors.”

tbrown@durangoherald.com



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