Survey: Local businesses face obstacles

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Almost any survey of the Colorado Springs business community will produce a mixture of positive and negative results.

Given that basic assumption, nobody in a crowd of about 75 local leaders should have been too surprised last week when Summit Economics unveiled its third biennial Pikes Peak Region Business Climate Survey. Just as in 2009 and 2011, the 2013 results provided a fascinating snapshot of how many business owners and managers view their own operations as well as the market around them.

On the bright side, respondents from 275 area firms reported that they had added 2,147 net jobs since 2011. That number wasn’t broken down by salaries, but given that the average company in the survey receives 43 percent of its revenues from outside the region (meaning they are export-driven), it’s safe to assume those added jobs pay well. It’s also an obvious conclusion that those 275 companies have a better outlook than two years ago, which coincides with the overall economy’s slow but consistent recovery.

Another positive response, with direct correlation to the previous surveys, came from this question:

How would you rate the local business climate in the Pikes Peak region compared to two years ago?

In this survey, nearly 73 percent of 393 respondents answered either “much better” (2.5 percent), “better” (31.6 percent) or “about the same” (38.7 percent). Those three numbers had totaled only 23 percent in 2009 and 57.6 percent in 2011. Those who view the local economy as worse or much worse total 27 percent, but that’s down from 39 percent in 2011 and a whopping 77 percent in 2009.

So it’s evident, looking through those prisms, that we’re on the upswing.

But that doesn’t mean Colorado Springs and the surrounding region have all the ingredients we need to take us into an era of new business growth and prosperity.

For example, consider this set of numbers: Many local companies have sought financing (ostensibly for expansion or riding through difficult times) in the past two years, totaling 49 percent of businesses with 10-24 employees up to 57 percent of companies with 100-499 employees. Yet, 62 percent of those smaller firms said it was “difficult to very difficult” to secure financing, and 58 percent of firms in the 100-499 range faced similar financing obstacles.

Another question asked what are the top problems or barriers to success for companies in El Paso and Teller counties. The top answer was workforce, and the data showed a sharp rise from the previous two surveys in companies having trouble finding qualified and capable people to fill available positions. One company owner at the presentation said he couldn’t fill good-paying positions, also because he couldn’t convince job candidates to live in Colorado Springs. In all, 48 percent of companies participating in the survey admitted having trouble finding and hiring qualified people.

Other problems/barriers making the top five included government regulations, transportation, political environment and local economy. No big surprise there, but those results confirm what many believed to be the case.

From there, the survey nailed down what has been widely believed as one of this region’s most glaring needs — adding more “younger talent (under 40)” to the workforce. Respondents could choose from strong, moderate, slight or no need. Here are the answers for strong or moderate need, based on company size:

1-9 employees: 28 percent strong, 30 percent moderate, 58 percent total.

10-24 employees: 38 percent strong, 47 percent moderate, 85 percent total.

25-99 employees: 39 percent strong, 44 percent moderate, 83 percent total.

100-499 employees: 45 percent strong, 23 percent moderate, 68 percent total.

500-plus employees: 60 percent strong, 33 percent moderate, 93 percent total.

It was not the task of Summit Economics to draw conclusions, though Summit’s Tom Binnings did emphasize that issue, and appropriately so.

We can talk all day about the need for more jobs and companies to bolster the Pikes Peak region’s business environment in years to come. But it quickly becomes obvious that we also have to address the problem of not being able to fill companies’ workforce needs, which also translates into cultivating an atmosphere that attracts more 40-and-younger professionals.

We have the outdoor recreation component, which matters a lot to the younger generation, and that gives us an edge over many comparable cities. We also have an education community that’s alert to the needs.

But it’s obvious that Colorado Springs must do more to make the 21-40 young adults want to move and/or stay here. That means more high-density, well-located residential choices, as well as better transportation and cultural options.

When we achieve that, we’ll have the foundation for our future.