Western governors tackle workforce development in low-unemployment states

Of the five states with the lowest unemployment rates in August, four were located in the western half of the U.S., a region where economic development is increasingly finding itself handcuffed to workforce development.

“Our labor market is way tight,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told a workforce development workshop hosted by the Western Governors’ Association at the Art Hotel in Denver on Monday.

So tight, companies don’t want to relocate to the region because they can’t find the workers they need, he said. When asked about their greatest challenge, businesses don’t list increasing sales or access to new markets, but rather their inability to find qualified workers.

In August, North Dakota, Colorado, and Hawaii ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 among states reporting the lowest unemployment rates — all under 2.6 percent. Utah, South Dakota, Idaho and Nebraska all were at 3.5 percent or lower, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Western Governors’ Association covers 19 western states, and its members are focusing more attention on better aligning the skills workers have with those that employers want. But the task is a challenging one.

“We want to redefine success,” South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said at the workshop.

One goal of workforce development programs is to make high school students aware of the perils of dropping out and the need to pursue training beyond high school, including options outside a traditional four-year degree, Daugaard said.

For example, an electrician, once established, can make $100,000 a year, Hickenlooper said. But convincing students, not to mention their parents, that rewarding careers can be had in construction or manufacturing can be a tough sell.

“There is a stigma attached to career-technical training,” said Tami Pyfer, education adviser to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.