Guest Columns


Finding Colorado’s unemployment in the most unlikely of places


I worked my first project with Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado (VOC) twenty years ago. We replanted an alpine wetlands to better filter toxic wastewater spilling from several abandoned mining tunnels along the flanks of Mt. Princeton in the Collegiate Peaks range. I’ve tried to work two or three similar projects each summer since with VOC. For the first decade, I labored as a strong back building hiking trails, constructing bridges and wildlife viewing platforms, even preparing urban gardens and installing park equipment. Whatever the project required.

During the past ten years, I’ve run the field kitchen for the volunteer crews who do this work. Whenever possible, I try to choose projects in parts of Colorado that I otherwise might never visit. My VOC involvement has taken me to Squirrel Creek, the Boggs House, Lake Navajo, Anasazi ruins, Burro Bridge, the Wheeler Peak Geological Area and the Maroon Bells (where you can no longer camp any other way). It has been great fun and the people Cyn and I meet are unfailingly exceptional, willing to sleep on the ground and toil like slaves to provide improved recreational facilities for thousands of Coloradans they will never meet.

Consequently, we try to cook up meals they will remember as a culinary surprise for a camping trip. We’ve whipped up Syrian lamb meatballs and cherries with couscous on the San Miguel River and blue corn meal enchiladas with lobster filling at the Great Sand Dunes. No hot dogs and baked bean plates for us. Twenty years ago, the composition of our volunteer workforce was fairly predictable. The overwhelming majorities were generally twenty and thirty something singles, with a smattering of married couples, several of whom had met through VOC. The remainder tended to be retired, or near retirement volunteers in their late fifties and up. What they had in common was a willingness to give up their weekend in exchange for sore muscles, blisters and, frequently, mosquito bites. This was not a selfish bunch.

Last weekend VOC partnered with the Rio Grande National Forest to improve hiking access to the Continental Divide Trail from the top of Cumbres pass at the Trujillo Meadows campground. I noticed, without being completely aware of its meaning, that we seemed to have an older group of volunteers — a surprising number of men and women in their forties and early fifties. After dinner (unfortunately without a campfire due to burn restrictions), I had a chance to talk with many of our volunteers. I met three unemployed engineers (electrical, electronics and mechanical) who acknowledged they were working the project in order to strengthen their résumés by demonstrating that they remained productively involved with their community. Another half dozen were willing to admit they were in the same boat.

Ted, who remembered me from several projects, is spending his entire summer rotating between projects with VOC, the Colorado Historicorps, the 14ers Initiative and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance. Despite seventeen years at Storage Technology and another ten with various Front Range tech companies, he is now essentially homeless, living out of his car. He is spending the summer of 2011 as a volunteer in order to save on rent, food and cable. His only real expense is gasoline as he moves from one outdoor project to the next. No one questions why he is camping out of his car and he hopes he can save up enough over the summer to begin a new job search in the fall.

The New York Times ran a story about the “invisible unemployed” last Sunday, and The Wall Street Journal recently estimated the official federal unemployment rate of 9 percent is probably twice that because of the millions, like Ted, who have simply quit looking for paid work. While they are no longer counted by government and their willingness to actually work may prove a temporary boon to volunteer organizations like VOC, our politicians, on both sides of the aisle, need to quit promising job creation and actually create some jobs. Colorado’s share of the national unemployment pool should be about 100,000 men and women. It’s evident they remain willing to work, even when no one is willing to pay them for their work. Surely, we can find worthwhile things for them to do — and, yes, I know this must be done in cooperation with the private sector. But, if we continue to wait on Washington, our neighbors may never work again.

John Kennedy’s inaugural admonition seems to have been turned on its head: America’s unemployed are ready to do what they can do for their country, it’s their government that appears to have lost sight of what it should be doing for them.

Miller Hudson has held variuus jobs in his life — US West employee, state representative, lobbyist, theater critic, executive director of a trade organization, and throughout he has managed to write articles for The Statesman.