Students learn cutting-edge manufacturing techniques at Front Range Community College, where instructors are helping train a new generation of highly paid, tech-savvy factory workers. Jonathan Castner/for BizWest

New public, private programs help train next workforce

If there’s one topic on which most in business agree, it’s that there is a major skills gap in Colorado and nationwide.

The problem isn’t new, but educators and businesses in the state are working together to try and close that gap, particularly in industries that have struggled for years to fill positions.

Health care, software development and skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical and mechanical are the worst hit industries in the state.

Front Range Community College is working to address the skills gap in health care by opening a new Health Care Career Center in Fort Collins in summer 2020. The 61,000-square-foot facility, located at the corner of Harmony and Shields, will consolidate many of the college’s health care programs under one roof, including medical assisting, emergency medical services and licensed practical nurse programs.

Hundreds of community partners are working with the college to develop programming and to make sure the curriculum will address the needs of the community, said Jean Runyon, vice president of FRCC’s Larimer Campus. The new facility opens opportunities to really promote teaching and learning, she said. The college is also planning to launch its second bachelor’s degree program in nursing to help fill the nursing shortage in the state.

Because health care is such a huge industry in Colorado, “I think we, as a community college, and other partners are really gearing up to meet that need. We look at future trends. As health care professionals, everyone is going to need us sooner or later. We are really trying to make that an area of focus for us,” Runyon said.

FRCC has a dental assisting program that will move to the new career center when it opens, in a new, expanded dental clinic. It also is starting to look at what new programs should be added. The building is being designed with flexibility in mind so the college will be prepared for the future as well. The center will have a simulation suite that will include high-fidelity mannequins and video capturing so students can watch themselves practicing a skill.

“We recognize the important role technology will play in supporting medicine and we want to be prepared for the careers of the future,” she said.

George Newman, advanced manufacturing program director at Front Range Community College, said that his program continues to grow because Colorado put a major emphasis on manufacturing back in 2013 when Gov. John Hickenlooper released his economic blueprint.

Hickenlooper identified a number of key industries that needed to be supported and grown. One was advanced manufacturing and the other was aerospace. From the blueprint came sector partnerships, collaborations between businesses and educators to address key problems in each of the sectors.

One of the most successful sector partnerships was the Northern Colorado Manufacturing Partnership, he said. FRCC used to have a machining program on two of its campuses, but they shut down in the early mid-2000s because they had a difficult time attracting students, not because the jobs weren’t in demand.

“One of the significant factors in the skills gap is that the public awareness of manufacturing is much less than many other industries and occupations in the state,” said Newman.

This all goes back to the elimination of shop classes in Colorado high schools. The other perception is that manufacturing in the U.S. is dead or dying because those jobs have been shifted to Mexico or China.

“Essentially the public is unaware of manufacturing or jaded, if you will, about the possibilities of considering a career in manufacturing,” he said.

FRCC spoke with machining companies in Northern Colorado in 2012. They told the school there was a critical shortage of machinists so the school started a program in 2013. After a year of showing it could attract students, the program received $4 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Labor to expand the machining program. It moved into an 11,000-square-foot facility in Longmont called the Advanced Technology Center. More than 600 machinists have gone through the program since 2014.

In 2017, FRCC began looking at other skills necessary to close the skills gap in manufacturing. In addition to its precision machining and optics technology programs, it decided to add programs in electronics engineering technology and industrial maintenance. Colorado has a huge number of companies that need electronics and computer systems help.

“I hear from companies regularly who tell you that they have to turn away orders because they don’t have people to run the machines to fill the orders they have. Right now, the economy is booming. Overall, not just in the state of Colorado,” he said. It is also becoming more expensive for certain companies to manufacture overseas. Companies that manufacture low-volume, custom items are more likely to make them here.

“There are hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs nationwide that have been repatriated back to the U.S. So we have an overheating economy, jobs that have been overseas coming back and the retirement of the Baby Boomers. It is a perfect storm that makes the skills gap even more serious than it might have been before,” Newman said. That is impacting how businesses expand and is having a negative impact on the state and nation’s GDP.

Some businesses have been aware of the skills gap since the late 1990s. Denver-based RK Mechanical Inc., which has a facility in Henderson, started an apprenticeship program for the trades it needs, such as plumbing, HVAC, sheet metal and pipe fitting, iron working and fabrication. It also is looking at adding materials handling down the road.

The company’s certified apprenticeship program is sponsored by Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver and has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. Out of the company’s 1,600 employees, 300 are apprentices in six different trades, and that number is expected to keep growing.

“It’s becoming a challenge to handle all those apprentices,” said Russ Sullivan, manager of learning and development for RK Mechanical. “But it gives them the guidance and the expectations and the opportunity to do what I call learn while they earn.”

The program has helped RK to identify new business lines that have in turn made the company more profitable, he said.

RK believes that employees shouldn’t be treated as assets. Instead, they should be treated as investors. The company recognizes that if it wants to continue growing along the Front Range and in the mountain states it has to invest as much into its employees as they invest in the company.

“When that happens, you get a synergy there. You get new ideas, which lead to different business units, which lead to us making money,” Sullivan said.

The company is also exploring how to get involved at the high school level, building that pipeline from high schools into RK and the apprenticeship program specifically or even as skilled labor.

Denver has grown much faster than was predicted back in 2002.

“That growth of Denver caught some organizations around manufacturing and construction off guard,” he said.

RK’s apprenticeship program gives participants skills for life. They can leave RK and start their own small companies.

“We have given them the tools they need so they can succeed. We are leaving a lasting impression with folks if we help them grow and develop,” Sullivan adds.

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Read related stories in BizWest’s special report: Workforce Woes. Published in March 2019.

AI, robotics takes jobs, creates others

Skills-based training needed for manufacturers to fill open jobs

Measuring impact of alternative work

Skills mismatch may be dampening economic growth

Older workers face challenges

Ramping up talent recruitment and development

If there’s one topic on which most in business agree, it’s that there is a major skills gap in Colorado and nationwide.

The problem isn’t new, but educators and businesses in the state are working together to try and close that gap, particularly in industries that have struggled for years to fill positions.

Health care, software development and skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical and mechanical are the worst hit industries in the state.

Front Range Community College is working to address the skills gap in health care by opening a new Health Care Career Center in Fort Collins in summer 2020. The 61,000-square-foot facility, located at the corner of Harmony and Shields, will consolidate many of the college’s health care programs under one roof, including medical assisting, emergency medical services and licensed practical nurse programs.

Hundreds of community partners are working with the college to develop programming and to make sure the curriculum will address the needs of the community, said Jean Runyon, vice president of FRCC’s Larimer Campus. The new facility opens opportunities to really promote teaching and learning, she said. The college is also planning to launch its second bachelor’s degree program in nursing to help fill the nursing shortage in the state.

Because health care is such a huge industry in Colorado, “I think we, as a community college, and other partners are really gearing up to meet that need. We look at future trends. As health care…