Beginning last year, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) partnered with Pacific Community Ventures (PCV) and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Northwest Workforce Area (CDLE) to launch a pilot focused on advancing job quality among small businesses. A part of EOP’s Reimagine Retail Initiative, with the support of Walmart, the pilot deepened relationships between small businesses and workforce organizations in the pursuit of improving jobs and boosting businesses’ bottom lines. The pilot paired small businesses recruited by CDLE’s business services team with good jobs advisors from PCV’s business advising network to implement strategies from their new Good Jobs Good Businesses Toolkit. Businesses also received specialized state and regional support and resources from the CDLE business services team.
As part of this work, EOP’s Yoorie Chang sat down with one of the pilot’s small business owners and a member of CDLE’s business services team to understand how this unique partnership improved job quality. She interviewed Kevin Oxley, owner of Carpet One Floor and Home with locations in Craig and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Carolyn Tucker, a regional business coordinator with CDLE. During this conversation, Yoorie learned about Kevin and Carolyn’s experience with this pilot, the impact of the pandemic on businesses like Carpet One, and how collaborative and creative partnerships that improve job quality can benefit workers and businesses across the country.
Yoorie Chang: Kevin, could you start by telling us about your business and giving us an overview of your workforce?
Kevin Oxley: My dad, Jay Oxley, started our business back in the 1970s. He came from the Eastern slope of Colorado and moved to the Western slope to pursue a smaller town, get out of the city, and start his own floor covering company—which is something that he kind of grew up into, working for different tradesmen over the years. And following his path here in Craig, Colorado, I jumped in when I was about 13 years old and I’ve worked my way through different phases of the company, from installation to warehouse to now management and ownership here coming up very shortly.
Back in November, we acquired a second location, a Carpet One in Glenwood Springs. We have gone from (as far as gross sales) a $300,000 company from early times to $1.5 million to $3 million to now upwards of over $4 to $5 million company. So it’s been extreme growth, especially in the last year, because we doubled in size with the acquisition. We have eight full-time employees—that’s office staff and installation crews in Craig—and we have another six over in Glenwood Springs. So depending on how you count me, we’re between 13 and 14 people on typical payroll.
YC: How has the pandemic impacted your business, and how has this shaped your view of the importance of job quality?
KO: As a small business, I’m quite thankful that we had an understanding of our employees as we navigated difficult times. But it’s created a huge amount of necessity of shifting and being able to roll with the punches, accepting what can and can’t be changed, and then trying to communicate that back out to our staff. So a huge amount of challenges. We’ve had a huge influx of business. I feel quite bad for all the different organizations and sectors that weren’t able to continue working. It’s actually served as an economic boom for us.
YC: Carolyn, what have you been seeing in Colorado and your community with businesses?
Carolyn Tucker: As in many places in the United States, the pandemic has really rocked our community. In Northwest Colorado, there are a lot of resort and recreation types of industries. Restaurants and lodging have done a tremendous job of shifting goals and strategies and navigating this whole pandemic. I’m proud of the resilience and the creativity of the business community, be it navigating all the different health orders, navigating staffing, or navigating all the different changes going on. We’ve seen some major hits, but we’ve also got a really resilient community, and we’re getting back our labor force faster than the rest of the state. And I think that’s a testament to the resiliency and creativity and the resources that the community as a whole has brought to the business community to help them.
YC: How has the pandemic shifted your perspective of job quality as a workforce development professional?
CT: I think one of the challenges that the pandemic has brought to everybody is a reevaluation of what work really is. Because there’s scarcity going on not only from a workforce perspective employee base, but there’s also scarcity in the supply chain. So it’s always a question of, “how can we do more with less?” And that uncertainty is still with us—“will we get those materials? Will we get a good employee?” Dealing with that uncertainty is going to be a part of life moving forward.
One of the things we’re seeing is a shift in our workforce towards a higher valuing of work-life balance and the quality of a job. You’re not just going to do a job, you are investing in that business, and investing in that company. The quality of a job—be it wages, be it culture, be it training, be it long-term sustainability for you and recognition of you as an employee—that part of the business has become front and center. In Colorado, we had the lowest unemployment rate that the state has ever recorded pre-pandemic. We were under 3%. We had challenges with filling jobs even before the pandemic, which has exacerbated a number of existing trends. Job quality and the reputation of a business to attract people is becoming more and more important.
YC: Kevin, you’ve been a leader in creating good jobs and your team has thought very carefully and intentionally about job quality and the impact it has on your workforce. Tell us a bit about creating good jobs at Carpet One.
KO: Working with a good jobs advisor and working with my management staff, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on trying to figure out how to shift how a traditional carpet store flooring company could be to make sure that people are doing jobs that they appreciate, that they can grow into, and feel like they’re contributing to. I’ve learned a lot through listening to what people have to say.
We actually had a couple of different people try to quit fairly recently within the past several months, and we were able to renegotiate, though not strictly through wages. It was more so, “I don’t like being stuck behind a computer all day long. Can I be out doing other things more?” Sure. Well, we can start shifting you towards outside sales. Or “I feel uncomfortable being in customers’ homes. Can I find ways to contribute just at the retail location?” So, our ability to shift and allow good people to do their jobs has been paramount in our success. A good jobs framework has really helped me evaluate where we can accommodate. Because employees are not just crawling out of the woodwork, applying left and right. So, we’re just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
YC: Can you tell us about what kind of supports you’ve been working on with your advisors?
KO: We really delved into budgeting, forecasting, trying to find things within our small business that we could run like a corporation. How do we create job descriptions and corporate structure and different ways to both alleviate individuals that were overwhelmed—specifically me—and try to find those pieces to put into the right spots to create a management hierarchy that allows for growth? Because I have found for me, expansion is fun. I discovered that I’m an entrepreneur at heart. It’s not about floor covering, it’s about looking for different ways to do different things and find opportunities. That’s what drives me. And I found out very quickly that you can’t do that without the pieces of the puzzle in place ahead of you.
So, slowly but surely, we have spent a lot of time trying to get the foundation of our business very strong and very well understood. And we’re looking towards branching out, finding these right next steps, these right next people. My advisor, Larry’s first question to me is, where do you see yourself? What’s your goal? And my BHAG, Big Hairy Audacious Goal as they call it, is to be the largest name in floor covering in the Western slope of Colorado. So, there are obviously financial pieces that need to come together and personnel pieces that need to come together. And it’s just been enlightening to have those conversations with someone like Larry, who’s been through it all, from small business to large corporation, and really has a feel for how these things can happen.
YC: Tell us about how you incorporate the perspectives of your workers in your work with this partnership.
KO: One thing that we’ve put a lot of time into is surveys. Trying to develop a deep understanding of your employees, understand what people want, trying to find ways that they can do that. And through any kind of incentive, there are obviously financial incentives, there are time off incentives, there are all sorts of things—locating and understanding what drives those different individuals through this whole process is what can allow you to move to the next level. Trust me, it’s still a work in progress. We have not mastered this by any means. And I feel a lot stronger in my Glenwood location right now than I do in my Craig store, and there are all sorts of things that probably go into that. I’ve been the kid in the family in Craig forever, but I walked into Glenwood as the boss, so I was perceived differently from the get-go. It’s a fresh start. That survey was developed through CDLE and myself and PCV, and we’re compiling those results as we speak. We had full participation from my full staff. Those are the things to find not only who you are, but who they are and what you can bring to them that makes their lives better.
YC: Carolyn, are there any particular job quality changes or strategies that you’re excited to see the Carpet One team implement? And are there any strategies that you’d love to see scale within your community?
CT: One of the things that will be helpful for our business community is to understand the broad term of job quality. A lot of people don’t know. They hear job quality and they don’t understand what that means. It could be wages, it could be time off, it could be different benefits packages. It could be more training. All these things combined make up job quality and the satisfaction, commitment, and loyalty of an employee to a business. So, it’s not just one “I need to raise wages” or, “oh, I can’t compete with the big guys because my benefits package doesn’t match.” It’s: how can you adjust your business so that it is attractive to employees, keeps employees, and are not financially out of the ballpark to do? It’s just really taking time to learn about employees and implement some of those strategies on a long-term basis.
A lot of businesses are scared of the idea of job quality because it looks so huge. Let’s take it down to those basics: let’s take this week, or this month, work on your onboarding. Let’s work on your reputation. Let’s work on a business survey to see exactly what people are talking about. So it’s slicing and dicing it into something that is going to work specifically for that business.
YC: Kevin, what would you share with other business leaders and your peers about the value of working with a good jobs advisor?
KO: Knowing a lot of my peers, I would say swallow your pride and accept that you don’t know everything. And when you reach out to get help—both through the Aspen Institute and CDLE and Carpet One as a co-op, we’ve been able to access so many different points of information. I have my education, but they didn’t teach me in business school how to run a business through a pandemic. They didn’t teach me how to acquire another location. I have a basic knowledge of financials and cash flow and things like that, but what does it mean to absorb eight more employees into your culture and try to share that amongst them? And the networking aspects that I’ve done through a lot of my life, and one of the things that I pride myself on, all culminated throughout that process. So reach out, swallow your pride. There’s always someone out there who knows something more than what you do and just take the time to work on yourself, work on your business. And if you can do that, great things will happen.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tweet .@AspenJobQuality, @PCVtweets, and @ColoradoLabor launched a pilot focused on #jobquality for #smallbiz. In this interview, we hear from @CarpetOne’s Kevin Oxley and CDLE’s Carolyn Tucker on the success of this partnership.
Tweet By pairing #smallbiz recruited by @ColoradoLabor with good jobs advisors from @PCVtweets, #workforce organizations deepened relationships with employers, enhanced #jobquality, and boosted the bottom line.
Tweet In this interview, @yooriechang of @AspenJobQuality sits down with Kevin Oxley @CarpetOne and CarolynTucker @ColoradoLabor. Hear how their partnership improved business performance and #jobquality — and lessons for employers across the country.