Coping with a two-sided job market
Unemployment rates shine, where are the wages?

Steaming Bean employee Marisa Affolder rings up a customer while Sadye Wissman, background, helps out in the back. Although the country as a whole is experiencing unemployment rates hovering in the 6 percent range, Durango and La Plata County are anomolies, with a rate at 4 percent. Local economic experts speculate that the area’s high cost of living has something to do with the lower rate./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

As the nation copes with what is being called the worst job market in a decade, Durango and La Plata County have remained relatively immune. However, while local unemployment levels are well below national and state levels, all is not rosy for Durango workers.

In December, unemployment nationwide hit 6 percent, marking the highest level of jobless Americans since 1994. Job availability has been plummeting since the recession began in March of 2001, and the number of jobs lost since that time is the highest in nearly 20 years. For the State of Colorado, the picture was somewhat brighter in December with a 5.2 percent unemployment rate. By comparison, La Plata County has remained relatively unscathed. Locally, the rate of unemployment has bucked national trends, remaining at 4 percent in December.

No need to panic

Bobby Lieb, director of the Durango Area Chamber of Commerce and the La Plata County Economic Development Action Partnership, said that 4 percent unemployment is ideal.

“We are at about a 4 percent unemployment rate locally, which is well below state and national numbers,” said Lieb. “Four percent is what I would call a healthy unemployment rate. You get much lower than that and you start employing the unemployable.”

Ed Morlan, executive director of the Region 9 Economic Development District, concurred that La Plata County appears to be weathering the unemployment storm.

“We’re in the wintertime which typically has a higher rate of unemployment,” he said. “But on a gut level, I’d say I don’t think it’s particularly drastic right now.”

Morlan added that while local businesses like K-mart and the Silverton Millworks have recently laid off hundreds of workers, new business like Home Depot and new small businesses are buoying up the local job market. “There certainly are going to be some people losing their jobs, but I don’t think it’s cause for panic,” he said. “There are a number of new businesses coming into the private sector.”

Ironically, Lieb credited the Durango area’s high cost of living for the low unemployment rate. He plainly said that people can’t afford to be unemployed in La Plata County.

“The cost of living, and specifically the cost of housing, doesn’t afford the luxury of hanging around and waiting for something better to come along,” he said.

Mark Little, of Maria’s Bookshop, stocks shelves at the store Monday. Originally from Pennsylvania, Little has a bachelor’s degree in biology. However, like many who move to Durango, he is not able to find work in his field./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The waiting game

When she moved to Durango more than two years ago, Tracy Korb was one person who tried to wait as long as possible for the job she wanted. Korb came to Durango from New York City by way of Edwards, in the Vail Valley. In New York, she spent six years working in marketing and communications. She then made a lifestyle decision, forgoing the career and moving to Edwards. “I was mainly working seasonal jobs,” she said. “But in the Vail Valley, at least you get paid good money.”

Tired of ski bumming, she planned a move to Durango, viewing the town as a way to balance lifestyle and career. “I thought that by moving to Durango I would have an opportunity to get back into real work,” she said.

Armed with her six years of marketing experience, Korb skipped the classifieds and starting contacting communications-related businesses directly. After her phone calls went unanswered, she started poring over the classifieds.

“A lot of people still wouldn’t call me back even though they were advertising job openings,” she said. “I felt like I was basically qualified to do anything. But people seemed really slow on responding from the employers’ side.”

After a month, Korb was eventually driven to a temporary agency, which found her work in the office at Waste Management. Two weeks later, her job search finally paid off, and she landed the job she’s had for the last two years – membership and communications coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center.

Korb said she’s happy with her work but doesn’t view Durango as a land of opportunity. “I just don’t see a lot of options in Durango unless you create your own,” she said. “You have people with masters degrees and doctorates tending bar because they can make more money. But then again, people don’t move here for work. They move here for the lifestyle.”

Cashing lean paychecks

Connie Ackerman, labor and employment specialist with the Southwest Colorado Workforce Center, agreed that many of Durango’s more prestigious positions also have some of the lowest salaries.

“I don’t know if high paying and professional job even go together here,” she said. “Those jobs really aren’t available. People with doctorates are hoping to wait tables because that’s one of the better paying jobs.”

Lieb agreed that La Plata County is experiencing a wage crisis. “In terms of wages, we’re still well below the state and national averages,” he said. “There’s a dramatic disparity between wages and the cost of housing. That’s an area where we drastically need improvement.”

Brendon Hays, a DHS graduate, works
the Burger King drive-thru Monday./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Lieb added that the problem may begin to address itself as Durango’s job base diversifies. He said that while high-paying professional opportunities seem few in number, they have increased over the past years and are continuing their climb.

“I would argue that professional opportunities have been growing in the community,” he said. “By definition, we’re still considered a rural area, and there just aren’t the jobs that are available in urban areas. But our job base is diversifying.”

As evidence, Lieb pointed to a drop in the percentage of locals working in the tourist industry. He noted that three years ago, 35 percent of La Plata County residents had tourism-based jobs. This year, that number is down to 24 percent.

Outside looking in

However, the future remains uncertain. A portion of the Southwest Colorado Workforce Center’s duties revolve around finding temporary work for residents. Ackerman said that in her 19 years with the agency, the list of available jobs is as short as she has ever seen it.

Mark Prouty, branch manager of SOS Staffing Services, said that even though winter is a traditionally slow time for temp agencies, his list of available jobs is also shorter than usual. He added that competition for the list has been stiffer with calls from people outside the area on the rise.

“We getting a lot more inquiries from outside the area from people who are going to relocate,” Prouty said.

And while people may be in a hurry to relocate to La Plata County, they may share Korb’s experience once they get here. Ackerman said this may be particularly true in light of Durango’s current economic situation.

“Even though it took some time to trickle in here, we all know that 9/11 had a big impact,” she said. “We’re certainly still also in the throes of drought. It’s a tough time in Durango. It’s a very tough time.”







News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index