December 1, 2023

Business International

Business International For Your Health

A conversation with Colorado’s economic development chief about how the pandemic has changed how the state does business | Business

Pat Meyers just finished his first year as the head of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

He’s also the state’s chief economic recovery officer — a new position created by Gov. Jared Polis, who appointed Meyers to lead the state’s COVID Innovation Response Team in March 2020.

Meyers served as John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff when Hickenlooper was governor, and he served in the U.S. Navy from 1978 to 1984.   

In a wide-ranging interview with The Denver Gazette, Meyers talked about his first year on the job, how the economic development office has changed during the pandemic and his leadership style.

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What are your reflections after your first year heading the Office of Economic Development and International Trade?

I was pretty familiar with OEDIT when I came in, so I had a leg up on somebody coming in from the outside who knew nothing about it. But I’m also the head of the Economic Recovery Office, which was not a function that ever existed on this scale — at least within the state of Colorado. So I would say that building recovery was actually more of a challenge than OEDIT. Not only has it been around a while, it’s got staff that’s been around for a while. They really know what they’re doing and are a great team. … So I like to think I contributed some value. But my focus was more on recovery. … It was spending a lot of federal money in a relatively short period of time, and staffing in a way that we know we’re spending it correctly. That’s both by the rules, but also where it’s having the most impact, to the most people in most communities, record keeping, having an audit trail and reporting to the public how we’re spending all that. … It was an interesting year.

What, if anything, has changed in the way the office does business in light of the pandemic?

It really depends on the function within OEDIT, because there are several obviously. All of the state agencies were affected by the pandemic. Leave aside for the moment we created the recovery office within (OEDIT) and had new functions that we have not traditionally had. But I would start with global business. We would historically spend all year doing trade missions, meeting face-to-face and bringing people to Colorado with the goal of attracting companies or having companies expand here, or getting to companies thinking about leaving. That became impossible during the pandemic. Nobody was traveling. Nobody was meeting face-to-face. Ironically, in a way that opened up channels of communication that simply had not existed before. That’s similar to remote work. Before the pandemic, like 3% of state employees worked remotely. Now it’s well over 50%. The same thing happened with global business. … But they actually accomplished quite a bit in the last year, whereas you would have thought that would have been the part of OEDIT that would have been impacted most. Tourism was definitely impacted as well. (The Colorado Tourism Office is under OEDIT). … I would say the way we supported businesses was impacted as well. It was more helping them stay in business, as opposed to helping them start a business.

I noticed a lot of international companies coming to the Space Foundations’ Space Symposium last month in Colorado Springs. What has OEDIT done to attract more?

We’re shifting back to trade missions. We just had a group in Germany and in Scotland doing trade missions. We had something like 70 businesses in Mexico City that we met with recently — a lot of them were probably car businesses. But there were others interested in Colorado. As travel is coming back, we’re shifting to more in-person meetings and presentations. Having said that, I think remote meetings are here to stay. … (International businesses) are important because you’re bringing growth to the economy with hopefully sustainable and environmentally good jobs. Colorado does a good job with growing jobs itself. But we’re also about very small business. That’s like 90% of the businesses here. We’ve got great research facilities and schools here. …We also have an aging population — people aren’t having kids like they used to, so we need to be able to replace our workforce. Attracting really great industries attracts wage earners from other states or internationally.

I’ve heard you talk about the skills imbalance Colorado is experiencing right now — there are a lot of open jobs, but not necessarily people with the right skills to fill them. How do we fix that?

There is a skills mismatch. I also think there’s a geography mismatch. … You have as many open jobs right now as you have unemployed people who are still in the labor force. I think that also there’s a child care problem that has contributed to that, particularly with women. There are probably a number of reasons there’s a skills mismatch. … There were plenty of jobs posted requiring a four-year college degree that really didn’t need it. But that wipes out a lot of potential workers because it’s still a minority of the population that ends up getting a four-year degree. So if you take all those kids who are not going to get a four-year degree and you say you’re automatically excluded from a whole bunch of potential jobs — there you have your skills mismatch. It’s something that John Hickenlooper and Jared Polis are very focused on — really working with apprenticeship programs and regional collaboration. … We’re going to go into every region of the state and say, ‘What do you need? What does the industry within this region need?’ And how can we (incentivize) whomever that is to fill the gap? Whether it’s a company, or a community college, or maybe it is a four-year institution. How do we get that training in that region? … I talked to a project manager who said he can’t find welders. He said no one wants to go into welding schools. So now what they do is go into high schools and they say, ‘We’ll pay you to come and start learning to weld and you are guaranteed a job as long as you learn the craft.’ You’re guaranteed to get a job once you graduate from high school. We need to do more of that.

Tell me about your relationship with Gov. Polis. Many think you took this job as a favor to him.

Well, I don’t think I’m doing him a favor. I was working on John’s two campaigns, we had shifted from presidential campaign to the Senate and I had hired a campaign manager that actually knew what he was doing. Because I didn’t. Then when COVID hit, the governor and his chief, Lisa Kaufmann, asked me to come in on the Emergency Response Team. It was basically trying to find medical supplies and PPE (personal protective equipment) for the state. I talked to John about it, and said you know that’s a higher value than what I was doing — and he said OK. I thought this is something where I kind of understand supply chain and I understand the state and I thought I could help. He was all for it. I have viewed all of my government service — and I know this sounds hokey — but it really is kind of an opportunity to give back. I was either in private practice or private industry for like 30 years. So this is a way to give back to the state I grew up in. I love this state. … I understand the private sector. I understand budgets. I understand the state budget and the state procurement rules and just the way the state operates. So it was easier for me to figure out recovery than it might have been for others.

I know several people personally who have left OEDIT since you took over, and I’ve heard about 30% of the staff has left in the last year. Is that normal when a new leader comes in, or do you think that’s normal churn?

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I don’t feel like it’s a problem. It’s actually about 20%, which is kind of the historical norm for this agency. There were various reasons. Some retired. Some got offers from other agencies that were paying more, or some from private sector — which by definition pays more. It’s a hot job market. … For a lot of agencies, there’s no private-sector equivalent. But here, there are a lot of equivalencies.

What about your leadership style makes you successful? You’ve earned the trust of a lot of powerful people.

My ability to manage people and have them feel like they’re valued and they’re heard. Even if they disagree with an outcome, at least they had an opportunity to talk about what they thought should be the outcome. I’ve carried that with each of my career chapters. That’s been the constant I’ve learned. Because when you’re in the Navy and supervising people — I was like a 20-year-old supervising people — you learn what works and what doesn’t. People have different styles. It also takes a lot for me to get, like, hair on fire mad. I just don’t do it. I also don’t get panicky, unless it involves my daughters.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity.