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Colorado’s eastern farm counties are playing labor market limbo – The Denver Post

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- Hirdetés -

Colorado’s scarce worker predicament is most pronounced out on the Eastern Plains, where counties such as Baca, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Phillips and Yuma struggle with unemployment rates below 1.5% in December.

- Hirdetés -

In fact, Yuma County’s rate was the very lowest in the nation in November — at 1.2% — out of more than 3,200 counties, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the six U.S. counties with the lowest unemployment rate in November, five are in eastern Colorado.

In December, Yuma County dropped again to 1.1%. Out of a workforce of 7,516 people, there were only an estimated 83 unemployed. Joining it was Kiowa County, which had 11 people unemployed out of a labor force of 1,014.

The worker shortage east of the Front Range is largely the result of an aging population — in which young adults leave the agriculturally dominant area for opportunities elsewhere, even though jobs are plentiful if they choose to stay.

“Our labor shortage has been culminating over the past several decades, as our labor force has aged and slowly retired,” said Dawn Robards, regional director of the Colorado Workforce Center’s eastern region. “We do not have enough entering the workforce locally to sustain the demand we currently have.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

FLAGLER, COLORADO – JANUARY 22: Sheldon Tatkenhorst controls the grain elevator as he fills a large bag with hog feed at the Flagler Cooperative Association on January 22, 2020 in Flagler, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

According to a recent Emsi report on the economic prospects of 10 rural counties on the Eastern Plains, Robards noted that the number of retirees — 36,133 — easily outpaces the number of millennials — 20,956 — living in the region.

“Our local populations tend to dip around the ages of 22 to 24,” she said. “We interpret this as youth leaving to attend four-year college and university programs, and they stay gone.”

Brent Oestman, general manager of the Flagler Cooperative Association, employs 40 to 45 workers at his four grain elevators across Lincoln and Kit Carson counties — more than 100 miles east of Denver.

“It’s hard to find help and have enough help,” he said. “Everybody struggles to have enough bodies, especially in skilled jobs.”

He would like a few more truck drivers — armed with commercial driver’s licenses — to move grain and feed around. But for those who have the licenses to drive big rigs, Oestman said, job opportunities are plentiful in dozens of other competing trades around Colorado and the nation.

“Those who have a CDL have a lot of high-paying options,” he said. “It’s fairly transportable to wherever they want to go.”

He’s raised his hourly rate by $1 or so to lure workers to the cooperative but that, Oestman said, is no panacea.

“As individual wages go up, it limits the number of workers you can have — so you spread more work over fewer employees,” he said.

Forty-four miles east of Flagler and less than 15 miles shy of the Kansas state line, Rol Hudler heads up economic development for the city of Burlington. A few months ago, Mortenson Construction placed ads in local papers announcing a job fair for the Cheyenne Ridge wind farm it plans to build for Xcel Energy, Hudler said.

“They didn’t come close to filling the positions,” he said. Mortenson declined to comment for this story.

Even with the closure of the Kit Carson Correctional Center in 2016, and the accompanying loss of nearly 150 jobs in Burlington, Hudler said worker scarcity persists nearly five years later in the town of 3,200. Some of that is because of people leaving town after the prison closed, but the problem of finding enough workers to propel the local economy goes beyond town boundaries.

“There aren’t enough people to fill all the jobs,” Hudler said.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

FLAGLER, COLORADO – JANUARY 22: Talon Fitzgerald works on stacking 50-pond bags of hog feed at the Flagler Cooperative Association on January 22, 2020 in Flagler, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

According to the Emsi report, the 10-county region encompassing Colorado’s Eastern Plains had a population of 112,783 in 2019, slightly less than the population of Arvada. The report forecasts an increase in the population of only 1.2% — or 1,352 people — over the next five years.

“Part of the problem is there’s a limited population out here and it’s aging,” said Candace Payne, executive director of the East Central Council of Local Governments, which covers Kit Carson, Elbert, Lincoln and Cheyenne counties.

Services that more populated parts of the state take for granted, like daycare facilities or child care, are hard to come by, Payne said. Add to that challenges familiar to residents on the Front Range, like the lack of housing, and it’s not hard to see why young couples starting a family aren’t flocking to the area.

But Robards, with the Colorado Workforce Center, said efforts are being made to attract young families and bolster the pool of employees businesses can tap.

“Local communities in our area are looking closely at housing, amenities and broadband access in order for the plains to remain competitive,” she said. “Recent stats show over 10,000 location-neutral jobs in the state, with many being higher skill/wage positions. Broadband will make us more competitive in that area.”

She noted that Morgan Community College in Fort Morgan has added a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing, allowing the area “to meet the business need through a ‘grow your own’ approach — keeping youth in the community with access to the same educational opportunities should they have gone elsewhere.”

There are also efforts afoot to tackle the labor shortage issue from the other end of the demographic scale — targeting retirees who are aging in place or moving to the Eastern Plains for a less expensive cost of living, said Logan County economic development director Trae Miller. Programs like Retirement Encore or the NextFifty Initiative aim to draw retirees to part-time work, should they need to combat boredom or make a little cash on the side.

“We’re seeing a lot of retirees and older people cashing out of their homes in the metro area and coming here to buy a cheaper home — they can live a good retirement out here,” Miller said. “It’s a great way for them to stay actively engaged.”

Despite their already tight labor markets, most of the state’s eastern counties have still found a way to add jobs, said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Of the seven eastern Colorado counties with an unemployment rate below 2% in June, five were able to add jobs year-over-year in the second quarter. In Yuma County, the job growth rate was a robust 18%, which helps explain why its unemployment rate dropped so low.

“We have been saying for a while that if unemployment gets too tight, job growth will slow,” said Gedney. “Despite the really tight labor markets, we did see an acceleration in their rates of job growth. That surprised me.”

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