Opinion

Colorado’s next governor must help bridge the skills gap — with better schools

Author: Taylor Merritt - July 9, 2018 - Updated: July 9, 2018

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Taylor Merritt
Taylor Merritt

The skills gap. It’s a ubiquitous issue among Colorado employers.

As a CEO myself, I have yet to meet one of my peers whose number one challenge isn’t workforce development and the talent pipeline. In a state with around 3 percent unemployment, it can seem nearly impossible to recruit and retain employees. These challenges are even more daunting for a small manufacturer.

My family has owned and operated manufacturing businesses since 1951, and I intend for us to be around for the long-term, but I often feel my ability to grow and expand the number of jobs available in Colorado is hampered by my inability to find skilled workers. As I write this, we need to hire eight new team members in our factory just to keep up with strong demand for our industry-leading products.

I know many business leaders struggle with this, but lack the opportunity or capacity to explain our challenges in quick sound bites that will resonate with the gubernatorial candidates. I’m hopeful recent results from a survey of Colorado employers, as well as key takeaways about what can be done, will get Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton’s attention.

The results from a recent statewide employer survey — captured in a recently-launched Business Guide for Colorado’s Next Governor—shows the extent of the problem. Importantly, it also sheds light on what would happen if we closed the gap with the employer-backed solutions to do so.

The survey indicated that, overall, 77 percent of employers said that it has been difficult to hire Coloradans with the right skills for open positions. Specifically, some 77 percent of employers struggle to find workers with applied skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. 65 percent said that job candidates lack workplace skills including teamwork and communication.

Colorado’s skills gap poses real challenges and costs to local employers. As highlighted in the study, 86 percent of employers said the skills gap poses a threat to their business. Because of this disconnect between the skills of job seekers and those needed for jobs, nearly 75 percent of surveyed employers reported spending more on recruiting and training than they would have otherwise, and more than two-thirds of respondents have experienced productivity losses.

Importantly, the survey also asked Colorado employers how they would respond if the state’s skills gap was addressed. Overwhelmingly positive, employers would significantly increase their investment in the state; 85 percent would hire Coloradans rather than import talent from elsewhere. 76 percent would increase their investment in employee compensation.

As a small-business owner, I want to invest in my community and my employees. The Business Guide’s employer survey shows that other employers agree.

So, where do we go from here? I was excited to see strong alignment among Coloradans around what education-improvement strategies would be most effective. Nearly 90 percent of voters and employers support attracting and retaining effective educators, providing work-based learning experiences, and developing students’ applied and workplace skills, which employers have said are severely lacking in job candidates.

This survey was conducted because the business community believes education needs to be front and center during this year’s gubernatorial election. We want to make sure the candidates understand, from an employer perspective, both what a better education system would mean for the state economically and how our struggling system of today poses serious challenges for employers and their employees.

As a small business owner and deeply-engaged civic leader, I’m at the table because I know that when Colorado schools improve, everyone wins. Business leaders, large and small, stand ready to help our 43rdgovernor make Colorado’s schools number one in the nation.

Taylor Merritt

Taylor Merritt

Taylor Merritt is the chairman and CEO of Merritt Aluminum Products Company, a top-50 family owned business in Colorado and a 2018 Colorado Companies to Watch finalist. He is a 2017-2018 Colorado Governor’s Fellow and an executive member of Quarterly Forum, and he serves on the Board of Trustees for Colorado Succeeds.