Just south of the intersection of Astrozon and South Powers boulevards, the James Irwin Charter Schools operate under the oversight of Harrison School District 2. The K-12 campus prepares the workforce of tomorrow within blocks of many of the city’s most promising career opportunities in manufacturing.
Springs Fabrication, dpiX, Concepts in Millwork and Advanced Equipment Inc. are a few of the companies along South Powers Boulevard that have created hundreds of skilled trade jobs. For all the potential employment opportunities, however, experts forecast a storm on the horizon.
“I think everybody in the business community is concerned about the skilled trades,” said James Irwin CEO Jonathan Berg. Berg’s charter school petitioned D-2 to launch a Trade Academy several years ago, which would have prepared students for skilled trade positions before graduation — even providing trade-affiliated licenses prior to commencement. The initial proposal was denied by the district because, Berg said, it found the program didn’t focus enough on preparing students for college and because the Trade Academy hadn’t yet hired qualified instructors.
Berg said hiring instructors before the program gained approval would be like putting the cart before the horse.
“We didn’t have a contract, so we’re not going to hire teachers until we have an approved entity for which to hire,” he said, adding the charter school is in the process of revamping its application with hopes to gain approval as soon as this summer. The academy, if approved, could begin courses in 2016, he said.
As for college preparation, Berg said not every kid is cut out for, or even interested in a college degree.
“We in K-12 [education] should provide every opportunity to provide the background needed to succeed in college,” he said. “But the other side of that — not everybody wants to go to college. If that’s the only direction open to them, or even the main emphasis, [those students] kind of lose interest in school. At the end of the day, 50 percent of seniors will not go to college, and not all who do graduate. What are we doing to prepare them for the workforce?”
Simply put, there won’t be enough skilled trade workers to keep up with demand, Berg said.
“Go where there’s manufacturing jobs and the people performing them — the master craftsmen all have gray hair,” Berg said. “They are coming up to retirement and all the data shows that for every three [skilled tradesmen] that retire, there’s only one to replace them. And these are decent-paying jobs with a career track.”
In 2013, Pikes Peak Community College was awarded $2.3 million as part of a $25 million statewide grant called Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program, or CHAMP, a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant given to a consortium of Colorado community colleges and Metropolitan State University of Denver by the U.S. Department of Labor. The money provided to PPCC was put to use throughout 2014, according to James Kynor, associate dean for manufacturing, industry and technical studies at the community college.
“We’re putting new curriculum in play and purchasing new equipment that is manufacturing, 3-D printing and [Computer-Aided Design] focused as well as [investing in curriculum for] traditional machining and welding,” Kynor said.
PPCC also is offering certificate programs that can be completed in as little as one year, he said.
“Those one-year certifications provide the foundational framework and provide students the understanding of welding, machining and 3-D printing,” he said. “That means accelerated entry from college straight into the workforce. It’s no longer necessary for students to get two-year degrees, (although that is preferred)because the [certifications] are stackable, so students can get certificates in machining, then electronics, and get into the workforce and have an opportunity to come back and finish their degree.”
Kynor, who has worked in manufacturing for more than a decade, said the region lost half of its manufacturing jobs during that time.
“There has been a chronic shortage of skilled [workers], particularly in welding and machining, and that’s reflected nationwide,” he said, adding demand in those fields is growing.
“We’re having trouble attracting youth into those types of positions as we’re seeing Baby Boomers retiring with no one to backfill. Manufacturing jobs are down [locally] by half, but we still have a worker shortage. That indicates that, as manufacturing is on the rebound, it will be even harder to find employees to meet that backlog.”
Like Berg, Kynor said the key is exposing future specialists to skilled trades as early as elementary school.
“There’s reticence among counselors, parents and students in general that manufacturing is this dirty, medieval-type atmosphere,” Kynor said. “Look at 3-D printing on state-of-the-art machines and you see how refined manufacturing really is.”
Berg concurred: “Part of the problem in manufacturing is people have this notion that it’s all on an assembly line,” he said. “In skilled manufacturing, it’s not that at all. Workers need computer skills, communications skills, math skills. … It’s really a broad field and very interesting. Go into any number of shops around here and it’s an amazing atmosphere and a great work environment. It’s not like [manufacturers are] coming out of the coal mines. Modern manufacturing is very technologically advanced. Depending on needs, there are more messy parts, but that’s only a piece. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Using hands and heads
In order to create a well-rounded tradesperson, Berg said the charter school plans to implement an entrepreneurial track to its manufacturing curriculum.
“There is a business aspect to the manufacturing side,” he said, referencing PPCC’s involvement with the Icehouse Entrepreneurship Program, which was inspired by Pulitzer nominee Clifton Taulbert’s accounts of his African-American uncle’s success in legally segregated Mississippi. “A couple of [charter school instructors] have been through that training. I think those lessons work well in manufacturing. I’d like to see courses where students need to price out a project. They would determine [the project’s] cost — machining, time, labor, employment taxes. They would need to figure all those things out.”
Berg said there is a large segment of the K-12 student population that “isn’t being well-served. The Trade Academy, just like college prep, wouldn’t meet every need. We recognize that but we’re a step to meet needs. … We need to open up different choices for students.”
Kynor agreed, stating one of the biggest hurdles to maintaining a strong manufacturing workforce is simply providing youths exposure to skilled trades.
“When I was a kid we had erector sets and built radios. We had wood and metal shop classes. I don’t know if kids do that anymore,” he said. “We have to start early and expose [young people] to building things.”
Kynor said early exposure is increasingly important as the U.S. aims to reshore its manufacturing industry. Internships are available thanks to relationships developed between PPCC and local manufacturers, he said, adding an educated and well-prepared workforce is one of the primary drivers of economic development.
“Workforce is always one of the top three components [to attracting new business],” Kynor said. “It never fails. And for a nation to be sustainable and build wealth, it has to produce something. A service economy doesn’t produce that kind of wealth.”