While labor pool drains, efforts under way to fill applicant pipeline

Curtis Englehart
Curtis Englehart
Tim Foster, President Colorado Mesa University
Tim Foster, President
Colorado Mesa University
Ken Haptonstall
Ken Haptonstall
Gretchen Morgan
Gretchen Morgan

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Even as the Mesa County labor pool drains, a variety of efforts are under way to maintain a pipeline of qualified job applicants.

Those efforts range from education and training offered in Mesa County School District 51 and Colorado Mesa University to the CareerWise Colorado youth apprenticeship program to what’s described as a “menu” of services offered at the Mesa County Workforce Center.

The common goal is to develop employees with the abilities their employers need, said Ken Haptonstall, superintendent of Mesa County School District 51. “They’re going to be better prepared to work for all of you.”

Haptonstall was among four members of a panel that discussed workforce development during a quarterly membership meeting of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. The panel also included Tim Foster, president of CMU; Gretchen Morgan, president of CareerWise Colorado; and Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center.

The labor market has improved along with the economy, Englehart said. The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County dropped to 4.6 percent in February, but fell to a 10-year low of 3 percent last year. The overall labor force has grown. And labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has increased. The trends have created more opportunity for people looking for jobs, but more challenges for businesses looking for applicants, he said. “It’s getting a lot more difficult to find that skilled labor.”

Developing the work force starts with public education, and Haptonstall said he expects School District 51 to excel in implementing a performance-based learning model in which students must demonstrate mastery.

An increase in the property tax mill levy for the school district will fund additional instructional days, books and other materials, technology and school repairs. A bond issue will replace Orchard Mesa Middle School, construct gymnasiums, pay for repairs and maintenance at other schools and provide additional security, he said.

Foster said CMU has grown from what started out as a junior college to a university that offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 10,000 students. A lot of those programs offer professional development, whether it’s to accountants, nurses or so-called landmen who work in the energy industry, he said.

A partnership between CMU and the University of Colorado at Boulder offers students the ability to attend CMU while earning engineering degrees from CU, Foster said. That program has expanded over the years to include mechanical and civil engineering as well as computer and electrical engineering.

Foster expects a new teaching hotel to be constructed to offer experience to CMU students pursuing careers in the hospitality industry. Additional facilities are planned to offer additional training to physician assistants and physical and occupational therapists

Meanwhile, CMU has joined with school districts in Mesa and Montrose counties to bring career counselors into high schools to encourage students to pursue additional education, Foster said.

“You can be proud of your hometown university,” he said.

Morgan said the CareerWise Colorado program coordinates apprenticeships among high school students, educators and businesses. Students completing the program earn wages while gaining skills, industry credentials and college credit that provide them with options to enter the workplace or continue their education. Businesses benefit from the program as they take a more hands-on approach to building their work forces.

The program addresses two problems in not only encouraging students to obtain additional training, but also meeting the work force needs of businesses, she said.

Schools and businesses in Mesa County have participated in the statewide effort from the beginning, Morgan said.

Englehart said the Mesa County Workforce Center offers what he called a “menu of services” to help people looking for jobs and businesses looking for applicants.

The center can help businesses write descriptions for job openings, post job openings on a statewide data base, screen applicants and host customized hiring events, Englehart said.

Once a business decides on an applicant, assistance is available to cover up to 75 percent of the wages of a new hire to make sure the fit is a good one, he said.

Moreover, Mesa County became the first certified Work Ready Community in Colorado under a program streamlining the process connecting applicants looking for jobs with businesses looking for employees. The program quantifies the local labor force and offers a comparison on a national scale, Englehart said. Those who’ve taken tests in Mesa County to earn certificates demonstrating their mastery of various skills  performed 13 percent higher than the national average, he said.

The four panelists said communication and collaboration remain key factors in their various efforts to develop the work force.

But that’s not a challenge, Englehart said. “This community does a really good job when it comes to collaboration.”