Immigration reform, older workers: Colorado businesses look to solve hiring problem.

The stubborn problem of labor shortages has Colorado businesses looking at older workers who retired or lost their jobs during the pandemic and want back in the workforce and at changes in immigration policies that could help fill positions.

Large numbers of people voluntarily leaving their jobs as the pandemic wore on last year spurred national discussions of the so-called Great Resignation. It’s also been called the Great Renegotiation or Great Reshuffling as people quit jobs for higher wages and better working conditions.

“The labor shortage issue is still persistent and real,” said Brian Lewandowski, executive director of the Business Research Division in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

For every unemployed person, there are nearly two job openings nationwide. At the end of April, the number of open jobs fell slightly to 11.4 million from 11.5 million, which was the highest rate since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking the number in 2000.

The number of people who voluntarily left their jobs in April stayed about the same at 4.4 million nationwide for a “quit” rate of 2.9%. The latest data available shows 3.5% of workers in Colorado quit their jobs in March while 3.0% did nationally.

“Workforce shortages, talent shortages were a pretty big issue before COVID-19, so the issue of talent shortages is a crisis now,” said Debbie Brown, president of the Colorado Business Roundtable. 

The roundtable, which represents CEOs and executives of Colorado businesses, had a recent panel discussion focusing on changes in immigration policy as one avenue for filling job openings.

Janine Vanderburg sees the tight labor market as a potential boost for her work on dealing with ageism and advancing opportunities for older Americans. Vanderburg, director of Colorado-based Changing the Narrative, said many older workers didn’t just decide to retire when the pandemic hit, but were laid off or encouraged to quit when companies scaled back during the recession.

“There’s this myth going around that there’s been this Great Retirement and all of us who are boomers’ age decided to quit and we’re off on cruises, living off 401(k)s,” Vanderburg said.

A large portion of the retirements since March 2020 happened after periods of unemployment, indicating people didn’t voluntarily retire, according to a report by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School.

Employers have asked Vanderburg to talk at workshops about finding older workers. “I really feel like we’ve got this incredible opportunity to change the way employers view older workers,” she said.

Business people who advocate common sense changes to the country’s immigration policies hope the need for workers will prompt movement on the divisive issue that gets a lot of back and forth but little action.

“We’ve had a multi-year grant for looking at immigration through a business and workforce lens,” Brown said. “What I’ve seen the last couple of years is much more of a willingness to talk about practical solutions that can help meet workforce challenges, not just in agriculture and seasonal jobs but also in high-skill jobs and in long-term solutions for immigration.”

Dane Linn, a senior vice president with the national Business Roundtable, said during the recent panel discussion that business leaders want to see comprehensive immigration reform. For now, they are talking to members of Congress and the administration about smaller measures that might gain bipartisan support.

The roundtable has concentrated on finding a permanent solution for the “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the U.S. as children whose status has been subject to court challenges and changes as administrations have changed. The organization also backs protecting refugees and removing barriers for foreign students and immigrants in high-skill fields.

“There is a real problem with the talent supply,” Linn said. “Why wouldn’t we want to keep that talent here?”

Millions of openings

Lloyd Lewis, president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores said he’ll leave the details of the policy changes to others. His position is simple, he said.

“We have 11 million open jobs and millions of people who want to work for us. It seems like we could come up with a reasonable way to make that happen,” Lewis said.

ARC Thrift Stores, in business since 1968, employs more than 1,600 people, has 31 stores across Colorado and plans to add more. Like other places, the stores have job openings.

“We’re not exactly having the Great Resignation, but it’s just been tougher,” Lewis said.

ARC prides itself on the diversity of its workforce, he added. Its net funding supports 15 advocacy programs that help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The business employs about 400 people with disabilities as well as immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan and other countries.

Lewis said about 10% of the employees are older than 65.

“If you don’t come up with reasonable immigration reform and reasonable policies, you’re denying the talent pool that can help your company and help your community,” Lewis said. “And it just brings a real strength to the company to have different age groups, different ethnicities, different backgrounds.”

Full recovery, and then some

Even as Colorado businesses are having a tough time filling jobs, the number of jobs and the number of people participating in the workforce are growing. In April, Colorado had the third-highest labor force participation in the nation at 69.1%, Lewandowski said.

The rate is calculated using the number of people employed or looking for a job divided by the working-age population.

“Colorado has come back stronger and faster than I believed it would,” Lewandowski said.

In fact, Colorado is just one of 14 states to exceed its pre-recession job levels. The state lost 375,200 jobs from February to April 2020, but added 389,400 jobs from May 2020 through March of this year. The labor force was 3.2 million in April.

At the same time, Colorado is 11th in the country for the number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs. The state’s unemployment rate was 3.6% in April.

“We’re doing better in terms of labor force growth and labor force participation” than many other states, Lewandowski said. “But these businesses are still telling us that they need more. I think that goes to the demand side of business.”

Need workers? Look in your inbox

Lisa Jensen has a ready response when employers say they have openings they can’t fill.

“What I tell them is that the workers they are looking for are in their inbox. The workers are knocking on their doors,” said Jensen, program manager at the Workforce Boulder County center.

One of the hurdles older job-seekers face is the screening processes companies use that Jensen said key into certain phrases and words.

“If the words don’t match, the resume basically goes into the trash can. Older workers are not really tuned into this,” Jensen said. “We think the employer wants to know everything about our work history and all the different kinds of work we’ve done.”

Jensen works with people on writing and resumes and with employers on writing job notices that don’t inadvertently screen out older workers. She collaborated with Vanderburg of Changing the Narrative on a recent workshop for older job-seekers. More than 200 people signed up.

Jensen knows a little about the travails of being an older person trying to find a job. She worked for several years at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. She was working on a pilot program that helped people in the community find jobs at Anschutz when COVID-19 hit and she was laid off.

“I became one of those older workers trying to navigate the new world of job seeking,” Jensen said.

It took a year and two months and more than 70 applications to land her current position.

After years in human resources, Cindy Hamilton opened her own firm, Denver Staffing Services, to help small businesses recruit workers with a focus on construction and the trades. Lately, she has been getting requests for older job applicants.

“And the reason for that is dependability and life experience,” Hamilton said.

One of the companies was looking for an office manager who could handle a lot of different tasks. “Some of these roles are not just the same thing every day. If you’re working in a small office and you’re the only administrative assistant, you’re going to be handling everything,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton sees flexibility in hours and other requirements as key to attracting older workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic and recession or retired and are returning to work out of financial necessity. When it comes to the workplace, Hamilton echoed others in saying that it’s still a seller’s market.

“What I find is there’s a lot of need for labor. I get very few applications,” she said. “I’ve seen many cycles, but this is one of the worst cycles as far as being able to find applicants.”

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