Even with Boulder County‘s strong economy, need for workforce development remains

With and the Boulder County economy adding workers at a steady clip, it would be easy to assume the local employment situation is all roses and rainbows.

For many, it is. Wages are on the rise and the job market is tight, which tends to boost workers‘ power relative to employers. But even given these positive signs, there are still thousands of country residents who are looking for work or are in need of a better job.

As the economy evolves and requires more specialized skill sets, local organizations are stepping to the plate to help locals develop those skills and put them in a position to boost their careers.

Low unemployment isn‘t the same as no unemployment

You don‘t have to look very hard to find examples of folks touting how well the economy is doing. Turn on the news, listen to quarterly earnings reports from company executives, check out certain politicians‘ Twitter feeds — the hype is tough to miss.

In April, the national unemployment figure dipped to 3.9 percent. This was the first time since 2000 that the jobless rate has been below 4 percent.

Boulder County‘s numbers are even lower. April‘s local unemployment rate was 2.3 percent, according to data released in May by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

But does this data tell the whole story about the status of the workforce? Some say no.

“People look at the employment rate and think there‘s no problem,” said Workforce Boulder County Executive Director Erin Jones. “But there are still people struggling out there looking for work. That shouldn‘t be ignored or forgotten.”

State labor department statistics indicate that more than 4,000 workers in Boulder County were classified as unemployed. Every year, Workforce Boulder County provides a variety of job training and workforce development services to more than double that figure.

Katie Hendrick, CEO and owner of Colorado Tech Shop, talks with Marcos Lopez, of Longmont, during a Workforce Boulder County job fair at the OUR Center in Longmont on May 24. ()

“We are known as a wealthy, highly educated area,” Jones said. “But there are people living in poverty who need a job or the skills to get a better one.”

The strong economy and low unemployment rate can sometimes obscure that fact that economic hardship still exists for some locals, she said.

“It‘s an interesting dilemma,” Jones said.

Skills to pay the bills

Boulder County employers are hungry for workers, but simply being a warm body that shows up on time isn‘t going to cut it in this evolving economy.

What employers are looking for, experts say, are skills.

During his keynote speech at May‘s , futurist and Center for Work Ethic Development CEO Josh Davies painted a somewhat bleak picture for unskilled workers.

Automation and artificial intelligence will reshape the workplace of the future, he said.

Davies cited estimates that put the number of jobs lost to automation worldwide over the next several decades at upward of 400 million. He predicted that total could include more than 90 percent of retail jobs, accounting for roughly 16 million people.

But Davies‘ speech wasn‘t all doom and gloom. He said a renewed focus on training workers to learn the skills that will still be relevant in the future could provide a pathway for success.

That‘s precisely what workforce development organizations in Boulder County are trying to do.

“Even though we are in a great economy, there are still people who have been laid off,” said. “We work with employers and organizations to make sure people have skills to get jobs so they don‘t fall off that financial cliff.”

Tara McLachlan walks downstairs at Galvanize past the “Learning is not a spectator sport” wall. ()

Along with services such as career fairs and resume-building workshops, the Longmont-based center offers a culinary arts program that serves a pair of purposes: First, it provides a place for low-income residents to get a bite to eat. Second, the program offers a 12-week class aimed at giving participants the skills they need to enter the food preparation and service workforce.

“Our goal is to have people gain skills, increase their income and be self-sufficient,” Salazar said.

From cooking an omelet to developing a mobile app, local workforce development programs offer job seekers diverse opportunities to build skills in a variety of industries.

In Boulder, offers programs for those looking to learn programming and coding skills.

“We are building a community where everyone is here to learn and level up in some way or another,” Galvanize program director Tara McLauchlan said. “We‘ve had people who were totally homeless come through the program, and we have had people come straight from Wall Street.”

The Denver-based company offers a six-month web development program and three-month data science program.

“I like to call it a career accelerator,” McLauchlan said.

Even though Galvanize focuses on cutting-edge tech skills, “at our heart, we are still a trade school,” she said. “Our success is measured by whether our students get jobs.”

Soft skills

While technical expertise is important, many involved with workforce development also place significant importance on soft skills such as communication and cooperation.

For the military veterans Daniel Savage works with, putting those types of skills to work during the transition into civilian life can be critical to securing a new job.

Savage, a Boulder-based veteran employment specialist with the state labor department, said, “Across the board, employers are recognizing that the soft skills that veterans bring in terms of teamwork and leadership are things that are tough to get in other (non-military) settings.”

McLauchlan agreed.

The veterans who enroll in programs at Galvanize, which accepts GI Bill tuition payments, “are really impressive and really fun to watch,” she said. “They may not have most relevant job skills for the current workplace, but their discipline and people skills are tough to beat.”

For job seekers who haven‘t had the opportunity to learn leadership and discipline through military service, help is available to help hone those attributes.

At the OUR Center, where participants often include the homeless and people who have spent years outside of the workforce, teaching interpersonal skills are part of the workforce development program.

“Just learning how to be a good employee and how to conduct yourself in a work setting can be an important part of getting a job,” Salazar said.

‘There needs to be a new process‘

The onus for ensuring that the labor force has the right skills by no means falls exclusively on the shoulders of job seekers and those looking for a more lucrative career. Employers have an important role to play, experts say.

“I think there is a certain pivot that the business community should consider” in terms of looking beyond whether a job applicant has a certain college degree or whether their resume ticks off a certain box on a human resources checklist, Jones said.

“There needs to be a new process for screening job candidates,” she said. “People tend to have a lot to offer beyond what‘s on a piece of paper.”

At the Boulder Economic Summit last month, Jennifer Hargrove, human resources director at Boulder-based biotechnology firm SomaLogic, made a similar point.

“We are going through a change now where we are learning how we hire those highly skilled, non-degreed or two-year degree folks,” she said. “Those are not the folks we are used to reaching out to.”

Part of that new process should involve “work-based learning” opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training, Jones said.

While there is agreement that low unemployment is preferable to the circumstances the country faced during the Great Recession, experts also seem to agree that work still needs to be done to make sure the labor force is prepared and engaged. But even with that recognition, there is understanding that there‘s no magic bullet.

“There‘s not one answer to all this,” Jones said. “It takes a collective, holistic review of the current practices around hiring and employment.”

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