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As unemployment drops, businesses labor to find workers

Record-low jobless rate making it tough for some companies to fill openings


Husband and wife Jim and Kate Curtis opened Village Roaster, a coffee store in Lakewood, 23 years ago. Some employees have been with them for five to 10 years, others are seasonal high school and college students. But although they describe their staff as stable, they have noticed a change in the past year.

“We don’t have as many applicants for positions,” Kate Curtis said. “There is not a lineup of people to choose from.”

The struggle to find employees is the result of a historically low state unemployment rate of 2.3 percent, the lowest in the nation, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reports.

That rate, which has remained the same for April and May, compares to a state unemployment rate of 8.8 percent in May 2010 and of 3.9 percent in May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national unemployment rate for May was 4.3 percent, compared to 4.7 percent a year earlier.

Openings are highest in nonfarm payroll jobs, which include goods, construction and manufacturing positions.

Business leaders in the Denver metro area agree the low unemployment rate signals a strong economy of employed people who have the means to spend money.

“Job security means the economic engine in sales is doing well,” said Pamela Kelly, general manager of Park Meadows shopping center in Lone Tree, which has 200 retail stores and 16 restaurants.

But conversely, the selection pool for employers has diminished in size and quality. Chamber of commerce leaders in the Denver metro area agree that their members — employers of small to large businesses — are finding it difficult to fill positions.

“It used to be that the typical ad you would see for employment was `help wanted: rock stars.’ Nowadays it’s more like `help wanted: warm bodies,’ ” said Doug Tisdale, executive vice president of economic development for the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, which has 700 business members. “We are just really hard-pressed to find people to fill available positions.”

Shifting attitudes

A major reason many employers are struggling to fill positions is the mindset of the millennial worker.

Millennials —a term used to describe the population born after 1980 — are taking the traditional four-year university route over trade professions, such as electricians, plumbers and mechanics. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, 40 percent of millennial workers ages 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2016, compared to 32 percent of Generation X workers — who are in their mid-30s to early 50s — and smaller shares of the baby boomer generation.

In 2015, to address the shortage of craftsmen and women in the trade industry, Colorado lawmakers created the Skilled Worker Outreach, Recruitment, Key Training Act, which included a three-year, $10 million grant for training programs, including pre-apprenticeships and peer-to-peer outreach through local colleges and associations. The second cycle of the act will be rolled out this October.

Still, business leaders say the attitude toward blue-collar jobs must shift.

“We created an image that you weren’t as good if you were doing hard labor,” Tisdale said. “We need electricians, plumbers, because we have all these fancy gadgets and nobody to fix them.”

Pam Bales, president of the West Chamber of Commerce, which includes 750 small- to medium-sized businesses in Jefferson County, has a similar outlook. She applauds the Jefferson County Business Education Alliance, formed five years ago to prepare high school students for the workforce, and Warren Tech, a career and technical high school in Lakewood, for fostering paths for young adults that don’t include a four-year university.

“There are all kinds of fits for young millennials who don’t want to go a traditional route,” Bales said. “They can get into a profession that they love.”

Business leaders also say millenials are as concerned with the lifestyle of a position — access to transportation, hours and benefits — as the pay. Companies need to recognize and address that mentality, said Tisdale.

Some companies have devised work environments and schedules that appeal to millennials and their older counterparts.

Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense company in Littleton, offers a 9/80 work schedule, in which employees work nine hours a day and get every other Friday off. It also offers medical benefits, incentives to stay healthy, including a health and exercise facility on campus, and clubs where people of like-minded interests can connect, said Reese Reynolds, humans resources director of Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Division.

“Healthy, happy and fulfilled employees get engaged in their work and end up doing great work,” Reynolds said. “We have outlets for their interests that are beyond their careers.”

Creative ways to keep employees

Restaurant and retail employers are finding unique ways to attract and retain entry-level employees in a competitive market.

Raising Cane’s, a popular Louisiana-based restaurant chain that opened this month in Highlands Ranch, closes for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the evening of Super Bowl Sunday. On Memorial Day, management hosts a picnic for all employees and their families. Each manager has a monthly budget called Cane’s Love to creatively reward the crew.

“Our culture is very strong,” said Amanda Klein, a Raising Cane’s recruiter.

Even so, the restaurant chain encountered challenges in finding employees for its newest Colorado location. A job posting in Highlands Ranch had far fewer applicants than a similar position posted in St. Louis, according to Klein.

Kate and Jim Curtis get to know their employees on a personal level. They ask about families and pets and celebrate occasions with their team outside of work. Commitment to their employees has allowed for slow and steady growth of their Lakewood business: Village Roasters, at 9255 W. Alameda Ave., now has a café in St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood and a kiosk in the Lakewood Cultural Center.

“The Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated — is our philosophy,” Kate Curtis said. “We definitely have rules and procedures, but we have flexibility.”

While there may not be one solution to the record-low unemployment rate’s adverse affects, business leaders hope to see more young adults apply for nontraditional yet highly needed positions in the workforce.

“It’s a great problem to have,” Bales said, “but it’s still a problem.”


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