CDLE’s Rural Listening Tour Highlights Common Economic Concerns in Changing Workforce Landscape

Joe Barela, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), and Katherine Keegan, Director of the new Office of the Future of Work, have spent this past week on a rural listening tour to hear about the workforce challenges facing the state’s rural communities.

“We wanted to learn how the state can help rural Coloradans prepare for the future of work directly from those affected,” said Barela. “Our goal is to use these perspectives to make whatever assistance we provide as useful as possible.”

Common themes emerged during their tour: how rural towns can proactively address massive economic and workforce disruptions, retain local talent and attract outside talent, and encourage economic diversity as the roles of agriculture and coal in rural economies change. 

A meeting with leaders from workforce, education, industry, and government in Colorado’s West End provided real-life examples of some of these barriers. 

Comprised of five towns (Nucla, Naturita, Bedrock, Redvale, and Paradox) in Montrose County, the West End has, over the past few years, been responding to significant changes in the local economy. Earlier this year, the local coal mine closed, and last week, a local power plant announced its premature retirement ahead of its previous planned 2022 closer.  The mine and power plant represented the area’s main provider of jobs and tax base; these closures put many people out of work and place communities at risk. 

Leaders say that these closings create a ripple effect in the community, affecting other businesses that supported the mine such as trucking companies that transported the coal. And young residents, seeing a lack of local employment opportunities, may move to the state’s larger cities in search of opportunity, further hurting rural economies.

To help coal-dependent communities like those in the West End adjust to today’s rapidly changing economy, and to help ease the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, Governor Jared Polis established a Just Transition Office under CDLE, charged with preparing a plan to address the employment needs of displaced workers. The office, the first of its kind in the country, will present a draft plan by July 2020 that will inform the state’s administration of benefits, such as workforce retraining grants, to displaced coal workers by 2025.

Local organizations are preparing for the current and future economic changes; the West End Development Corporation, who convened the local meeting with CDLE, is leading economic development in the area. At the Montrose Workforce Center, another stop in the listening tour, Barela and Keegan met with leaders from community organizations, business, education, and workforce development to learn how they are promoting work-based learning, while also supporting efforts in the West End to ensure workers have access to training, job placement, and small business development services.

“The people we’ve talked to are deeply familiar with their communities and are already proactively planning for the future of work,” said Keegan. “One idea that holds particular promise is connecting rural Coloradans to remote work. While there is some concern about how rural communities can thrive in today and tomorrow’s economy, our conversations were characterized by a sense of optimism about the opportunities ahead.”