Unemployment is low, but high-paying jobs remain
Dakin works the climbing counter at Pine Needle Mountaineering
earlier this week. Jobs in the service sector, such
as retail, continue to grow in Durango, and through the state.
Between 1990-2000, the services sector in La Plata County
grew by 70 percent, and the Colorado Department of Labor
projects it will grow by another 42 percent across the state
from the 2000-2010 period./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
K atharine, a 2004 graduate of the University of Colorado at
Boulder, moved to Durango earlier this summer to be near her
family and embark on her post-college career. However, three
weeks later, the 22-year-old with degrees in journalism and Spanish
was still looking for work.
"I was expecting to find maybe a summer camp or somewhere to
use my Spanish or maybe to do a little writing for a magazine.
I was looking for something substantial," she said.
However, combing the classifieds day after day proved futile.
"I was totally jaded," she said. "After a while Subway started
to sound good. There was the one about being 'tall and talky,'
and I thought, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"
Katharine found that even the restaurant jobs, typically the
most plentiful and lucrative, were hard to come by for someone
with no experience such as herself.
"Waiting tables is the prime of the prime, but even the restaurants
were very competitive," she said.
Eventually, good timing landed her a part-time cashier position
at a grocery store.
"I just got my job through luck," she said. "I went in to drop
off an application and this guy had just quit."
Unfortunately, at $6.50 an hour, Katharine is continuing her
"I'd like to work more than I am," she said.
Few and far between
What Katharine is experiencing is on par for the Durango job
scene, according to Allyn Talg, the director of the Career Services
Office at Fort Lewis College.
|Katherine McLain, a one-year veteran of
Carver's Brewing Co., greets customers
from behind the bar earlier this week. According to the Colorado
Department’s Winter 2004 Job Vacancy Survey, food servers
are in the highest
demand in Southwest Colorado. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.
Although Durango offers opportunities for workers - the unemployment
rate as of May was 3.6%, the lowest since October 2001 and well
below the national rate of 5.6% - the jobs available are not
always the most desirable ones.
"There are good jobs, but they are few and far between," said
Talg. "I tell college graduates that it is better to leave and
come back when they have some training."
For those wanting to stay, Talg says they may need to lower
their expectations by taking an entry level position or go into
an entirely different field all together.
"There seems to be a disconnect between what the labor force
is trained for and what is available," she said.
For starters, Talg said because of Durango's size, it does not
attract the large corporations like big cities do, so there simply
are not a lot of high-paying professional jobs. Furthermore,
when it comes to national trends, Durango seems to buck the norm.
"The problem is, Durango does not mirror national problems,
like with teaching," she said. "There's a huge demand for teachers
throughout the rest of the country, but when you come to Durango,
the demand is not there."
Talg said Fort Lewis College's Teacher Education Program as
well as Durango's desirability as a place to live play roles
in keeping the area well-stocked with teachers.
"For starters we have a great Teacher Education Program, and
secondly, people who do have jobs tend to stay longer," she said.
The jobs that are plentiful tend to be in the services sector,
a broad-based description that includes everything from hotel
concierges and food servers to bank tellers and health-care workers.
According to the La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership,
or LEAD, service jobs made up 35 percent of all jobs in La Plata
County in 2001, the most recent year for which data is available.
Other big sectors included government and construction, at 14
percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Bobby Lieb, executive Director of LEAD and the Durango Chamber
of Commerce, said these sectors have grown by leaps over the
last few decades. In La Plata County from 1990-2000, the services
sector grew by 70 percent while construction grew by 84 percent.
And Lieb said as long as the local population grows, so will
"Most of the jobs that are growing are based on the recent population
growth, " he said. "We're seeing a rise in people services.
Banking, health care, government, real estate, retail, construction - all
those are a factor of population growth."
The pay stub
The downside to growth in the labor market is the fact that
service wages, with the exception of jobs in health-care, legal
or technical fields, tend to hover between $13,500 and $23,500.
This is below La Plata County's current average annual per capita
income of $29,000 and well below the state's average of $39,000,
according to the labor department. Further driving down wages
is the fact that people are willing to accept lower pay in exchange
for Durango's high quality of life, according to Steven Krichbaum,
an economist with the labor department. Plus, there is fierce
competition among local workers, who tend to be a highly educated
lot, he added.
"Durango is one of the highest educated cities in the state," said
Krichbaum. According to the 2000 Census, 36 percent of La Plata
County residents have a college degree, compared with 33 percent
in Colorado and 24 percent in the country.
The low wage problem is compounded even more by La Plata County's
average cost of living and above average housing costs, he said.
However, he said there is an upside, in that Durango and La
Plata County are not alone in the wages vs. cost of living struggle.
"These are important issues for most of the state, especially
in nonmetro areas," he said.
In fact, there are counties where the situation is far more
bleak, such as Summit County, an area Krichbaum said is similar
to Durango in many ways.
"The average wages in Durango are much higher than in Summit,
but Summit's cost of living is much higher," he said.
Krichbuam also said that despite its imperfections, the Durango
economy is actually quite vibrant.
"The truth is, Durango has one of the most healthy economies," he
said. Fueling this is the diversity of area businesses, which
vary from Fort Lewis College, to Coca Cola Bottling of Durango,
a local Coke bottler, to Durango Mountain Resort to construction
He also pointed out that although unemployment is the lowest
it's been since October 2001, today's situation is better in
"There are about 2,000 more people in the (La Plata County)
labor force since '01 and we also are seeing a higher number
of job vacancies," he said.
And for those holding out for the higher paying jobs, he said
the most recent Job Vacancy Survey for the area, conducted last
winter by the labor department, found there are still a few to
"We didn't find a ton, but there are some," he said. "There
were several high-paying jobs in medical and educational fields."
Krichbaum also noted that locals who aren't having luck turning
up leads for new jobs can visit the Southwest Colorado Work Force
Center, a state-funded office that provides free employment and
"If people haven't stopped in, I think they should," he said. "It's
a good resource for job seekers to try."
Talg, who has been in her position at Fort Lewis for 15 years,
agreed that although the outlook is not great, job prospects
have never been better, and determined job seekers will eventually
"While it's better than it has been, don't quit your job and
move to Durango and expect to find another one immediately," she
said. "It's not all doom and gloom, but it's not easy. A person
needs to be persistent and work their connections and contacts
and not just give up."
As for recent college grad Katharine, this advice has already
begun to sink in.
"That's what it all comes down to: connections," she said. "Going
in and just dropping off a resume doesn't do anything."