Can higher education help solve Eagle County’s workforce challenges?

Local employers have a roundtable discussion Thursday with University of Colorado leaders

Todd Saliman, president of the University of Colorado, addresses a room full of Eagle County employers Thursday at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards.
Ali Longwell/Vail Daily

EDWARDS — A contingent from the University of Colorado visited the Colorado Mountain College Vail Valley campus on Thursday for a discussion with local business and nonprofit leaders about top workforce challenges. The roundtable was part of the university’s Summer Outreach Tour, which took the representatives across the state to hear from communities about their needs.

The Eagle County event was hosted by Vail Valley Partnership and kicked off with a presentation by the organization’s program manager, Anna Robinson, who shared what major trends the partnership is seeing and hearing with regard to the workforce in Eagle County.

Every day, Robinson said that the local chamber of commerce hears a version of the same line from businesses of all sizes, industries and locations: “We had our best year ever, but I’m not sure if I can do it anymore.”

“Essentially what this means is that the financial capital is flowing in. We have no shortage of people who are willing to come here and spend their money, but the human capital is seriously lacking,” she said. “We are having a hard time keeping people in this community, even though the quality of life is stellar.”

Where this sentiment is coming from is that while sales tax increased 52.7% from 2019 to 2022, there are three job openings for every job seeker, Robinson added.

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Robinson reported some upsides as well, including that employers are increasing salaries, investing time and money to keep employees here, providing professional development training and certification, making some progress on housing, and more.

With the economic and demographic information presented by Robinson as the backdrop, University of Colorado’s President Todd Saliman opened the conversation to the local professionals in the room, asking: “What are the things that we can be doing to help you get the workforce that you need here?”

“Are there things that we could be doing to provide continuing education and lifelong learning to your employees so that they not only have the skills that you need but also so that they stay?” Saliman added.

From those in attendance — which included nonprofit directors, representatives from Colorado Mountain College, Eagle County, small businesses, Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, and more — the discussion centered on several topics: retaining workers, engaging students in the workforce with internships and apprenticeships, and how to reach the county’s Latino population.

Retaining workforce

Seth Ehrlich, the executive director of SOS Outreach, emphasized the challenge of retaining top talent.

“In running a business up here, part of the challenge that we run into, or that I run into, is how to get people to the next level without them needing to leave the community to get the skills,” Ehrlich said. “There’s a lot of exporting of talent that is happening here of kids that need to go elsewhere to get the skills that they need, and then they just keep working in those communities.”

Ehrlich pointed to the success of a Mountain MBA program run around 20 years ago. This program, he said, had a “long-term impact” in creating leaders who are still in and contributing to the local community today.  Programs like this “really reflect the opportunity to be here, maintain your career here, and work on those skills.”

Mandy Moses, who runs Elevated Dental and serves on the Partnership’s board of directors, said this challenge has been heightened in health care because health care providers compete with other industries but can’t offer the same remote and flexible work options. Moses suggested that there may be an opportunity for universities, organizations and businesses to create incentives that bring the workforce back to the community after they’ve left to get the skills they need.

Michelle Marks, the chancellor of CU’s Denver campus, said that this was a challenge the traveling cohort had heard from various communities on the Western Slope and across the state.

“The problem that we’ve heard about the last three days is how do we retain our workforce and continue them on a path to lifelong career and life success?” she said.

Opportunities for students, businesses

Internships and apprenticeships were offered as one opportunity to develop the workforce within the community.

“A lot of them still live at home, they have housing, but they’re able to contribute financially to their families and hopefully save enough to stay here and live on their own,” Robinson said. “And that’s an important piece of this, is tapping into a population of employees that already has roots here and already lives here.”

Carolyn Tucker with the Colorado Workforce Center noted that while they’ve seen success with Vail Valley Partnership’s CareerWise program — which it runs in partnership with Eagle County School District and other local partners — there are challenges with getting both students and businesses interested in the program.

“We’ve got a lot of those collaborative efforts, but I think that’s one of the challenges with apprenticeships and internships, is getting bodies into that and having a career pathway that that person can see and can get reiterated from a business perspective,” Tucker said.

Part of the challenge is that most businesses in the valley are small. Robinson reported that 90% of Eagle County businesses have fewer than 20 employees and 80% have fewer than 10 employees.

“They don’t have the capacity to nurture an intern,” Tucker said.

Dave Bombard, who owns Bishop Telemark Ski Bindings, noted that he has worked with engineering students at both the Colorado School of Mines and Western Colorado on design projects. While Bombard noted that while he’s had “great success” with these projects, he acknowledged that “it does take some effort to set up your project and make sure it’s defined well.”

However, as the CareerWise program is reserved for high school students, Tucker said many businesses express interest in also having older students in internships and apprenticeships.

“I love the idea of using your students in internships in the mountains,” Tucker said. “That would solve some of our interim workforce challenges, but also give real-world experience to your students, which I think is only going to be more valuable when they graduate.”

Broadening outreach

There was also discussion about how to engage the county’s Latino population in not only the workforce but in higher education as well.

Bratzo Horruitiner, the executive director of My Future Pathways and Vail Valley Partnership board member, noted that My Future Pathways works with first-generation students, “mainly Latinos” in the valley. Among this group, the failing rate is really high, with 13% of first-generation students graduating college this year.

“Which is not only a bad investment, but a super bad model,” Horruitiner said.

With My Future Pathways, Horruitiner said they’ve explored a different retention and hiring model where it partners with Vail Health to pay student loans up to $30,000 per student and subsidize the cost of masters in specific areas of high need.

To engage this group, Dennis McMahon, founder of local business HyFyve, also suggested that the message and the delivery are both critical.

“When I think about our Latino population and the opportunities therein, we have a huge body of individuals who live here who are family-oriented above all else, and they love to be here and they want to remain here. So what are the educational systems doing to truly communicate via the tools and media that our Latino population frequents?” McMahon said.

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