A student takes advantage of Springs Fabrication’s welding training center.
A student takes advantage of Springs Fabrication’s welding training center.

Cole Evans can sleep easy. He has a good job lined up when he graduates from Mitchell High School in 2016. Evans is going to Kansas to work as a welder with his cousin’s husband.

For the past two years, he has been training in Pikes Peak Community College’s area vocational welding program. This year, the community college, in a partnership with local metal manufacturing company Springs Fabrication, has expanded its ability to keep up with the region’s workforce needs.

The deal: Springs Fabrication modified and leased an empty building at a very low rate to PPCC, which invested $130,000 to stock the facility with welding equipment. The college has priority, but Springs Fabrication can use the equipment when there are no classes.

“I was asking [PPCC President] Lance [Bolton] about getting more welders through their program and he said they were full. They had no way to expand,” said Tom Neppl, founder and owner of Springs Fabrication. “I said maybe we should put a school where we are. We needed a better training process anyway. The easy part of the conversation was deciding it was a good idea. The hard part was getting all the pieces together.”

Debbie Sagen is instrumental in putting those pieces together. The vice president of workforce development with PPCC, Sagen works alongside Colorado Springs School District 11 and the Pikes Peak Workforce Center as part of the area’s adult and family education initiative.

The college is piloting an adult workforce partnership, which trains entry-level workers, often with low literacy skills. “Usually they’ll have a GED or high school diploma but not much more than that,” Sagen said. “They’ve always struggled in school, and we’re teaching them skills they need for entry level jobs in manufacturing and construction.”

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The program has had some success pairing businesses and trainees.

“We’re working with several employers to help with that partnership,” she said. “Employer partners agreed to interview people who go through the program, and possibly offer jobs if there are open positions available.”

One such partnership is with Spectrum Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, which might hire solderers who train through the program.

“They’re a smallish manufacturing company with about 35 employees, and they need good solderers,” Sagen said. “Our problem at the college is, it’s hard for us to hold on to soldering instructors with certifications because they make so much more in industry.”

Sagen said, to remedy that, Spectrum will allow flex time or pay extra for use of its instructors.

“We may even use Spectrum’s training center, which is so nice for these people to actually see manufacturing while doing their training,” Sagen said.

About 25 students are in this semester’s pilot program, but the center can take up to 60. Sagen expects to be closer to that number next semester.

Officers in business

People seeking new careers can also benefit from PPCC’s efforts to fill regional workforce needs. Beginning in January, junior officers close to transitioning out of the military can participate in a leadership development program underwritten by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The course, to be taught at Fort Carson, will provide leadership and business administration curriculum during 14 weeks.

“We’re setting up internships with local companies so they can learn from within civilian management positions and possibly take jobs in local companies,” Sagen said. “A lot of times junior officers will have a degree, but no experience in the civilian world.”

Sagen said the programs represent how PPCC has adapted its curricula to meet workforce needs.

“What we can do in the workforce development division at PPCC is … offer employers and the workforce only the courses they need to take the next step in their career,” Sagen said. She said the college is always looking for input from local industries regarding skills gaps, because partnerships are vital in expediting certifications for specific workforce needs.

“The four-year degrees are the staple of the world and will be for long time,” she said. “But now we’re starting to understand that there are gaps between a diploma and an associate’s degree, and between a bachelor’s degree and the world beyond a bachelor’s degree.”

‘More normal than unique’

Job training from the public sector simply can’t keep up with the needs of private business. That thinking  led Neppl to provide PPCC with the welding training center, regardless of where students find work.

“We’re seeing the demand for private industry and businesses to get more involved [in workforce training],” Neppl said. “Our education system appears ill-equipped to do that. It just can’t move quickly enough. Skilled trades change rapidly, and it’s not that [schools] aren’t willing to do it, but you have to build a curriculum, hire teachers and put everything in place. That takes time.”

Springs Fabrication scheduled the opening of its welding training center in August to coincide with the start of PPCC’s fall semester. Approximately 40 students, from high schoolers to adults, are taking advantage.

Lee Corn, the college’s welding instructor, said the partnership will help alleviate what is expected to be a drastic national shortage of welders.

“The average age of a welder is something like 55,” Corn said. “That means there are a lot who are older, and they’ll be getting out soon.”

PPCC’s area vocational program works with local school districts, as well as in Teller and Elbert counties. Students like Evans can earn college credits while in high school.

“If a junior [in high school] comes in, they can do the two-year program and complete up to 30 credit hours toward a 72-credit degree,” Corn said. He said partnerships will likely become more common.

“For colleges to be able to expand programs, it takes square footage, and there’s an enormous cost to that,” Corn said. “It’s cost-prohibitive in a lot of ways. But manufacturers need that workforce, so they need to throw resources in to develop that workforce … now we can create a pipeline for ourselves.”

Editor’s note: This is the final story in a three-part series about local school districts and PPCC working to meet industry’s workforce needs.