Service jobs dominate labor scene
Unemployment is low, but high-paying jobs remain elusive

Jeremy 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 job search.

"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 Labor 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 these sectors.

"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 companies.

He also pointed out that although unemployment is the lowest it's been since October 2001, today's situation is better in many ways.

"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 be had.

"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 training services.

"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 be rewarded.

"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."






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