Study Spots Educated, Untapped Workforce in Rural Colorado

Rural northeastern Colorado has an educated, skilled and untapped workforce, according to a new study by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. The study, which focuses on Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma counties, identified almost 7,500 people who are unemployed and looking for work, thinking of entering or re-entering the workforce soon or who are looking for a different job.

The study, which was conducted to help businesses that might move into the area gauge potential employees and their skills, was commissioned by local governments and economic development groups out of frustration arising from the difficulty of creating and attracting new businesses. The area is dominated by the agricultural industry, but residents had a wide variety of skills.

"This area is often thought of as being a farming area that offers little in the way of potential for business development because people may assume that the labor force is limited in either skills and education or in interest in working outside the home," said Lilias Jarding, who conducted the study as a researcher for Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the Department of Local Affairs Technical Assistance program.

"This report is important for at least two reasons," Jarding said. "First, potential employers often see farm households as having few saleable skills. And second, when the farm economy is poor and people fear losing their farms, one of their greatest fears is that they do not have skills that are viable in the general economic marketplace. This study indicates that both of these beliefs are flawed."

The Colorado State Cooperative Extension study surveyed 3,664 of the 25,825 households in the area. It focused on the entire region, as well as gathering information about specific counties and on populations within a 45-mile radius of larger towns in the region: Akron, Fort Morgan and Brush, Holyoke, Julesburg, Sterling, Wray and Yuma. Some of these 45-mile areas, or laborsheds, included a small slice of Kansas and Nebraska homes. The region includes Interstate 76, good quality state highways, freight rail service, passenger rail service, small regional transportation service, several small airports and one airport that can handle large jets. Denver International Airport is less than an hour’s drive from the western edge of the region.

Of households surveyed, almost half – 47 percent – reported that at least one resident held a college degree. The most common skills for households also included computer use, customer service, management, sales, teaching, construction and accounting. In farming households, residents had notably higher level skills than non-farming households in welding, small and large engine repair, computer use, large and small animal care, machining, management and accounting skills.

One of the most important types of information gathered by the study, according to Jarding, is the number of people who are employed either at home or outside the home but who wanted a different job. For those who wanted a different job, the survey asked what type of work they would prefer, how far they would be willing to commute, what hourly pay range they’d accept and whether they would accept a job that did not include benefits.

The results indicated that 86 percent of those looking for a different job said they were willing to be trained in new skills. Twenty-four percent had a trade school degree and 38 percent had a college degree. On average, this group was willing to commute 34 miles one way. About half would accept pay at $8 an hour, 77 percent at $11 an hour and 40 percent would be willing to take a job without benefits.

"When survey results were extrapolated to represent the entire estimated population of the area, it represents about 4,132 people who are currently employed but are looking for a different job," said Jarding.

"Formal unemployment numbers may not reflect the actual number of people who are looking for work and qualified for jobs in this area," said Larry Worth, executive director of Northern Colorado Associations of Local Governments, which commissioned the study. "Many people in this area are not unemployed by state or federal standards but are looking for work and are high qualified for multiple types of employment."

Northeastern Colorado is an area of 4,169,075 acres at the western edge of the Great Plains and features large areas of irrigated agriculture, dryland agriculture and grassland. Development is focused along Interstate 76, which runs from the southwest to northeast across the region, along the South Platte River and in the scenic ridges and sand hills in eastern Yuma County.

The full text of this study can be found online at

For more information about this story and other agricultural related news at Colorado State University, visit


Colorado State University Cooperative Extension brings the resources of the university to you. As part of a nation-wide system, we call upon the latest research to help Coloradoans learn more about gardening and commercial horticulture, healthy eating, personal finances, community resources, agricultural technology, food safety, dealing with changes in their community, family relationships and managing small acreages and natural resources. Our youth development program annually reaches more than 115,000 children in Colorado. Our 57 county offices, serving 59 Colorado counties, help people use university expertise on the job, at home and in their community.