The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the Business Research Division (BRD) of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, State Demography Office recently partnered on an economic resiliency study of Colorado rural communities to understand what makes some communities in Colorado thrive while others fail to retain population and sustain economic growth.
Unsurprising to us here in Eagle County, the key issues identified housing availability and supply; labor market; youth & family retention; and smart growth. Housing was explored in detail last week.
Unemployment in Colorado recently dropped to 2.6% (the lowest since 1976 when unemployment numbers were tracked); Eagle County unemployment was even lower at 1.8%. These low numbers actually result in economic stress as 60% of local businesses have open positions, and many skilled positons remain open as the labor force doesn’t have the skills needed to fulfill the positions.
The rural community report showed this is the case across Colorado and not just in Eagle County or the mountain region. A common issue expressed in nearly every focus group in the OEDIT study is related to the pool of available labor in each community. Some communities have a significant shortage of skilled workers, while others have the challenge of not having an adequate number of jobs and too many overqualified workers.
As experienced in Montrose County, a lack of skilled labor is often caused by the inability of employers to offer sufficient wages for educated and skilled employees. This causes what town leaders call a “brain drain,” an exodus of skilled labor from the area. This results in a gap between business owners and service workers, with little room for the middle class as the lower end of the labor pool has grown more rapidly.
In addition, an inadequate number of workers creates a problem for the community as the number of people working is not enough to support the number of people who want to live in area for recreational purposes and for tourists. Although committed community members may be willing to work for lower wages to stay in the area, it is difficult to retain workers and attract new labor when wages are uncompetitive for the skilled and educated part of the labor pool.
The availability of childcare is also difficult for working families as it is either cost-prohibitive or unavailable in many areas. Thus, it makes more economic sense for parents to stay home and care for their children rather than work, thereby lowering income and employment within the community. Challenges associated with childcare were brought up in the majority of focus groups. Many communities in the study do not have an adequate supply of affordable childcare and has challenges staffing existing childcare businesses. The addition of affordable childcare options within rural communities can attract new families to the region, as well as allow parents to join the workforce.
It is our collective job to maintain this quality of life by building an environment that allows businesses to grow, expand, and succeed. We’re actively working on workforce development programming and issues at Vail Valley Partnership and encourage you to join us and share your thoughts.
Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at VailValleyPartnership.com