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Unemployment in Colorado hit 11.3 percent in April. In El Paso County, the rate was even higher: 12.2 percent.

In the Colorado Springs Metropolitan Statistical Area, almost 43,000 people were unemployed in April.

Those numbers represent jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses were forced to close.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment more than 540,000 new unemployment claims were filed in the 12 weeks ending June 6, including filings for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

While these and other workforce statistics are grim and uncertainty about the future remains, there are hopeful signs.

“Many economists were predicting a continued slide in terms of unemployment,” said Cecilia Harry, chief economic development officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC. “But 2.5 million jobs came back in May. That was a bit surprising.”

Under new state guidelines announced by Gov. Jared Polis June 15, many workers were able to return to work as businesses were allowed to reopen with limitations.

And in Colorado Springs, nearly 20,000 job openings were posted in fields ranging from IT and health care to retail and customer service.

Businesses were able to access additional resources, with the reopening June 15 of Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans to all eligible applicants and revisions to the Paycheck Protection Program, including the extension of loan maturity terms to five years per agreement with lenders.

And job applicants can look forward to more assistance in finding jobs as the Pikes Peak Workforce Center prepares for reopening.

CONSUMER CHOICES CHANGE

Even for economists who have modeled and tracked other situations when the economy lost a lot of jobs, “this is playing out very differently than many experts thought that it would,” Harry said.

However, the industry sectors anticipated to be hardest hit — leisure and accommodations and retail — are continuing to struggle, she said.

“We still have a lot of folks in our market who are not seeing their jobs come back and likely might not see them come back in the short term,” Harry said. “That’s a challenge because a lot of those jobs in those industry sectors are lower skilled jobs.”

With the onset of the tourist season, “we’re seeing some jobs added” in the hospitality sector, she said. “But there is no question that people’s tourism habits and desires have changed in the short term. There might be folks exploring Manitou Springs, but we don’t have folks staying at The Broadmoor, a particularly large employer tied very closely to tourism and accommodations.”

With most still avoiding airline travel, the Pikes Peak region is seeing more local tourism as visitors choose places within a day’s drive of their homes.

Retail establishments are beginning to reopen, but many that have found online or curbside solutions to generate revenue may continue to operate that way. Consumers have embraced online ordering and have found it convenient to call ahead and not leave their cars to pick up orders.

“There’s lots of speculation that that might become the new norm in that industry sector,” Harry said.

The pandemic has forced businesses to “take a look at their entire business model to see where they could embrace some lean practices,” she said. Many are still trying to figure out where consumer confidence is heading and how to weather the next couple of months with as few expenditures as possible.

All of that points toward employers not getting back to full strength soon.

“In the short term, companies are behaving leanly because they can’t afford to bring people back prematurely or act as if consumer behavior patterns are what they were a couple of months ago or this time last year,” Harry said.

In the long term, it’s much harder now for businesses to make decisions and plan for the future in the face of so many uncertainties — including the possibility of a second COVID-19 wave.

Overall though, the Pikes Peak region is in a better position than other metropolitan areas to bounce back from the COVID-induced recession, Harry said. Areas like Detroit never fully recovered from the Great Recession.

“We’ve experienced a decade of really strong growth and positive net migration of more people moving into the region, and that’s setting us up for long-term success,” she said. Hiring is still going on locally in parts of the defense contracting sector and technology.

The chamber recently completed a survey that found those sectors still are looking for skilled employees.

“A lot of the industries within that larger industry sector of professional and technical services, if they’re providing a service as compared to a physical good, much of their workforce is able to work remotely, and many of their clients are still in need of that service or that support,” Harry said.

WORKFORCE STRATEGY

“There’s a lot of opportunity for businesses right now to rethink their strategy,” and that includes the people who are part of their team, said Aikta Marcoulier, director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center. 

“You don’t have to hire back your same people,” Marcoulier said. “Maybe you were really happy to let go of some people. This is a good opportunity to get someone who is appreciative and committed.”

Businesses that have developed a stronger online presence, for example, might look for new employees who understand online sales platforms and social media. They might also need more help to update their websites and to protect the security of their networks.

Likewise, businesses that have instituted or expanded delivery services are posting job openings for delivery drivers.

Businesses that have a social impact component are having an easier time of rehiring now, Marcoulier said.

“If you don’t have a good culture in your business, and you’re not doing much for the community, the likelihood of recruiting and retaining an employee is lower than if you are doing something good,” she said.

The SBDC addressed recruiting and retaining employees during a webinar that was part of its Recovery & Resilience series. That and other webinars in the Friday Lunch Series can still be viewed on the agency’s website, pikespeaksbdc.org.

In addition, Marcoulier said, the SBDC’s counselors are getting a lot of questions about right-sizing and hiring strategies. The agency has brought on five additional consultants to help businesses manage their finances.

“I guarantee you everyone’s talking about how to stay lean and mean through all of this and utilizing all the free money and support that’s available to them,” she said. “People are starting to realize they can use those grants to upskill workers and bring on more people.”

Businesses also are looking at work-share programs, whereby they bring back employees part time. 

“There are different stages of bringing people back,” Marcoulier said.

The SBDC has been instrumental in helping businesses apply for Small Business Administration programs like the PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which can help small businesses fund rehiring or new hiring.

Funding is still available through the PPP, which provides loans that are forgivable if a company uses a portion of the money to continue paying its workers.

“The Paycheck Protection Program closes on June 30,” Marcoulier said. “That means you need to get to the bank now, because the SBA has to have it in processing by the 30th.”

The EIDL program, which until June 15 was open only to agricultural businesses, has been reopened to all qualified small businesses. This program gives advances of up to $10,000 to businesses experiencing temporary losses due to COVID-19. Businesses do not have to be approved for a loan to receive the advance, which does not have to be repaid — but the amount of the advance will be deducted from total loan eligibility.

The SBDC helps small businesses apply for these programs and find other state, local and federal resources that may be available to them.

Marcoulier said the state soon will be releasing Energize Colorado to provide low-interest loans to businesses and nonprofits that could not otherwise get funding.

She said a recent law passed by Congress, the Flexibility Act, provided a safe harbor for businesses that received PPP funding under certain conditions.

“If you ask employees to come back and they don’t, and you show documentation, you can still get the reimbursement,” she said. Businesses now have until December to get people back to work or show that they have tried to do so.

RETRAINING, UPSKILLING

As the Pikes Peak Workforce Center prepares to reopen later this month, Executive Director Traci Marques expects to see more clients who want to retrain or upskill.

“We’re going to see a significant increase in those who need help trying to figure out what they want to do,” Marques said.

The center provides aptitude assessments to help applicants decide on their next step.

“We are gearing up internally to be able to handle the increase of upskilling and CARES Act dollars that we received from El Paso County that will go towards reskilling and uptraining,” Marques said. “Right now, we’re working on a process to be able to implement that later on this summer.”

The center also has been working with job seekers to prepare skills-based résumés that give employers options to look at transferable skills and perhaps consider candidates they wouldn’t have looked at before.

The workforce center also is working with businesses as they start to rehire.

“We are giving them the information and the tools that they need to do skills-based hiring — making sure that they hire based on the skills that a job seeker has and what they need to actually fill that position,” she said.

Marques said she doesn’t know whether businesses will operate for the foreseeable future on a slimmed-down model when it comes to the number of employees they rehire.

“It’s going to be really interesting for everyone to figure out, once you get back in the office and you have staff coming into the office, what the capacity is,” she said. 

“Another great question is how many people are going to be able to continue to work virtually,” she said. “I think, very quickly, we jumped to the jobs of the future regarding working from home — virtual technology.”

As businesses start to reopen, “another thing the community needs to look at is to make sure that we have adequate childhood care for workers’ confidence to be able to go back to work,” Marques said.

The workforce center was averaging about 20 calls a day from people seeking employment assistance before COVID-19. In April and May, “we were close to 250 calls a day,” she said. “Now we’re down between 175 and 200 calls a day, but as the economy starts to reopen, we anticipate those numbers will increase.”