First, the good news: Colorado is among the top states in the nation for residents with a post-secondary degree. That’s good news for companies seeking an educated workforce. Now the bad news: It ranks near the bottom in students who complete a post-secondary degree. That means companies are importing workers more than they are finding the home-grown talent they seek. But that’s not hard to do because Colorado also ranks among the states with the best quality of life.
Consider this workforce supply-and-demand assessment from Colorado Succeeds, a business association working to improve Colorado’s education system: “By 2020, 74 percent of Colorado jobs will require an education of training beyond high school. Nearly 55 percent of Colorado jobs will require a STEM-related, post-secondary education. However, our state isn’t on track to meet this demand. Currently, fewer than 25 percent of high school graduates are able to attain the post-secondary training and credentials required for STEM careers. This gap, among others, has led to Colorado employers spending more than $19 million annually to import talent to fill unmet workforce needs. With 16 percent of the STEM workforce close to retirement, the time to act is now.”
And, it’s happening. HB-1289, which passed earlier this year, incentivizes school districts with a $1,000 bonus for each student who earns and industry credential tied to in-demand jobs, finishes a workplace training program tied to key industry needs or completes a computer science AP course.
“This is a very powerful incentive,” says Luke Ragland, vice president, policy, Colorado Succeeds. “It’s not geared to just any industry credential, but those industry credentials that are tied to in-demand jobs, and those can change every year. It’s about continually investing in and incentivizing certificates and industry credentials that are aligned to economic needs. These adaptable and flexible models are good examples of the types of systems we are building in Colorado.”
HB-1289 was supported by chambers of commerce throughout Colorado ,technology associations, high-tech companies, school districts and labor groups, all of which will benefit from a greater supply of home-grown talent with which to supply the state’s key industry sectors — aerospace, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, telecommunications and others.
Another model now being implemented in Colorado is c, or Pathways in Technology Early College (P-TECH) High schools. The model has received national attention for expanding opportunities in STEM education and better-preparing graduates for jobs requiring middle-skill jobs — those that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree. P-TECH schools are public high schools, college courses and work experience focusing on STEM. Spanning grades 9 through “14,” P-TECH graduates emerge with a high school diploma and an associates degree, usually in applied science, at no cost to them.
“Students are exposed to new career options and to real-world skills that are tangible but are so critically important,” says Ragland. “You typically see students’ academic performance increase along with the non-academic skills they are gaining. This kind of program engages businesses in a much more direct way. IBM has had a lot of success with it — this is not a charity for them, but rather a way to develop a workforce. There are high-tech corridors, north of Denver, for instance, that are really excited about this type of model. It’s something that will actually adapt as businesses adapt to meet the needs of local workforces. It can be tailored to every type of specific need. It might focus on advanced manufacturing in other parts of Colorado, or industries like tourism — whatever the industry need is.”
Meanwhile, new Colorado Academic Standards are being introduced in Greeley and elsewhere that are designed to make students more competitive in the workforce. “They raise the level of instruction and provide clarity and consistency to education, putting teachers, parents, business, and other community members on the same page. These are Colorado-developed standards for Colorado’s kids,” explains Bob Tointon, president of Phelps-Tointon, Inc., a manufacturer of architectural and structural products, and a new Colorado Succeeds trustee. “The new academic expectations recognize that today’s students are tomorrow’s college applicants, professionals, and well-informed citizens. They also recognize that students need to be on par with their U.S. peers and global counterparts. For business, this means that we can hire in Colorado expecting a depth of knowledge that includes skills like critical thinking, adaptability, and teamwork.
“For individuals,” he adds, “it means a clear understanding of how they’re progressing. It means that we have another measure in place to ensure that minority communities, traditionally underserved by the education system, are getting the same high-quality education. It means that students will be prepared for postsecondary education, which is quickly becoming a non-negotiable job requirement, and for careers they pursue upon graduating. And it means a life of higher salaries, employment and financial stability.
Colorado’s schools — and more importantly, its students — are well served by the states’ businesses. Some are learning right now about ways to implement a Swiss Apprenticeship Model at their Colorado operations — a model considered to be the gold standard worldwide.
“In so many ways, the business community is the end user of the education system,” says Ragland. “We firmly believe the interests of students and the interests of the business community are closely aligned.
“We want students who are better prepared, and students want to be better prepared,” he says. “Everybody in our organization believes that Colorado is the best place in which to live and work in America, and we want it to stay that way.”