This Monday, millions of Americans celebrate Labor Day, a century-old holiday paying tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. But no one, it seems, is celebrating labor these days.

As the gig economy proliferates, U.S. business is maligned for shipping jobs overseas, reneging on corporate pension plans, and perpetuating income inequality. Formerly part of the very fabric of civil society, business is increasingly seen as failing to deliver on its social contract with workers. “Corporate” and “greed” are two words that seem joined at the hip.

On the other hand, workers are feeling increasingly disconnected with their employers. Only 33% of U.S. workers feel engaged with, involved in, and enthusiastic about their work.[1] Fueling unease, the use of temporary, contract, and part-time workers is at an all-time high. The tidal wave of populism in November’s Presidential election illustrates the widespread insecurity and fear of American workers.

Here in Colorado, the economy is red hot. Our unemployment rate, at 2.4%[2], is the envy of the nation.  The labor market is tight, too tight.  Most companies we survey report labor gaps. An estimated 40,000 skilled trade and manufacturing jobs in Denver are unfilled today.[3] There are 15 unfilled STEM jobs for every unemployed STEM worker in Colorado.[4] “We can’t find good workers” is a ubiquitous complaint.

Despite this much-publicized labor shortage, thousands of Coloradans, some 7.9%, remain un- and under-employed.[5] And a job alone is no guarantee of economic sufficiency: 21% of full-time jobs pay less than self-sufficiency wages in Colorado.[6] With 300,000 Coloradans living under the poverty line,[7] there is seemingly insatiable demand for work. “We can’t find a good job,” is a constant refrain for many low-income Coloradans.

I founded Activate Workforce Solutions to address both the growing numerical divide and the loss of cohesion between employers and employees. Our mission is to activate individuals to achieve their fullest potential through the dignity of work. We believe that work is ennobling and empowering; work stands alone in its ability to deliver economic freedom. We seek to unlock the potential in both business and low-income individuals by providing pathways to employment. We are talent-spotters, matchmakers, and employment coaches.

“Nothing will work unless you do.” – Maya Angelou 

We partner with a dozen nonprofit job training organizations who will collectively serve over 1000 individuals this year. Our nonprofit partners have proven, time-tested work training programs that get low-income individuals ready to work. Many of these individuals have experienced homelessness, incarceration, or addiction. Some are refugees; others have experienced multi-generational poverty. After deeply transformative experiences, these individuals graduate, displaying hard work, initiative, and the courage to envision a better future. But finding work, even in Denver, is still elusive.

“Dee” is one of our placements. Dee is an engaging, alert young woman.  She exudes competence. Born into a criminalized family, she was taught the ways of the street from an early age. Using her wits, Dee became quite successful at dealing drugs, until she was caught. While in prison, she experienced an epiphany when her counsellor challenged her to make a choice about the future she wanted to live. She pivoted from her old lifestyle and made the most of her time behind bars, rapidly completing her GED and halving her sentence. Today, she is thriving in a new career, performing to the highest standards. Dee got her second chance.

When we first met Dee, she radiated optimism and determination. We saw her enormous potential—an intelligent, gifted, and motivated woman ready to prove her value. We helped her connect with her dream employer and provided her with supportive coaching in her first critical months on the job. She is taking advantage of this opportunity, setting goals and achieving them systematically. We expect her to be a supervisor someday soon. Work has provided Dee with dignity, purpose, and independence.

This Labor Day weekend, we celebrate work, the meaning of work, the promise of work, the potential of work. We celebrate workers who come from diverse backgrounds and who transform themselves and their colleagues through the way that they work. We celebrate employers who unlock the potential for dignity and self-sufficiency through the jobs they provide. We invite the whole workforce system to celebrate with us and to live out a lofty vision of work and calling.

[1] Gallup Employee Engagement Survey

[2] Denver Business Journal, August 30, 2017

[3] Noel Ginsburg, CEO Intertech Plastics, quoted in PBS Newshour

[4] Denver Post, STEM Job Openings Outnumber Available Workers, Aldo Svaldi, April 3, 2017

[5] Colorado Center on Law and Policy, State of Working Colorado 2016

[6] Colorado Center on Law and Policy, State of Working Colorado 2016

[7] US Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2015