Colorado Springs is on the brink of nearly unheard-of opportunities: growth in housing and manufacturing, expansions in cybersecurity and information technology companies, a proliferation of high-paying jobs.
There’s one thing still missing: a skilled workforce to meet the needs of business. Mayor John Suthers frequently says the city has the same number of jobs as people seeking work — but there is little to no overlap. Skills don’t match job descriptions. Failure to retrain adults — and start educating kids as early as middle school — means some locals will be left out of the rising tide of good jobs and high salaries.
Studies by the University of Michigan show the people left out are middle-wage earners whose jobs are being replaced by technology. The trend has created a polarization of earners: There are more high-end and low-end opportunities, but few in the middle — creating the phenomenon of a “jobless recovery” as the nation has experienced in the years since the Great Recession.
Closing the skills gap is vitally important to Colorado Springs’ economic development. And that means businesses must get involved. They must engage with middle schools, high schools, community colleges, vocational training centers and universities to let educators know what they lack so that education matches those needs.
Currently, opportunities for career and technical training are scarce both in Colorado Springs and on the national level. The Department of Education cut funding for vocational education by 20 percent, according reports by the Institute for Research on Poverty. Others show that there isn’t enough career counseling or guidance for community college students.
While workforce development programs benefit communities by increasing salaries, there’s little research about other benefits. Increasing salaries and giving people steady jobs also can benefit communities through lower crime, fewer people on welfare rolls, homeless people and unstable homes.
Researchers do have suggestions to improve workforce development programs: increase training intensity, tailor services to client needs, focus on job retention and advancement (not merely placing someone in a position quickly) and working closely with employers to make sure clients get the training needed.
Colorado Springs is fortunate. The Pikes Peak Workforce Center has programs in place to assist job seekers who want to train into other jobs. Pikes Peak Community College partners with local businesses for manufacturing and construction training. A new partnership between Peyton and Widefield school districts brings additional opportunities for high school students to train in a career field.
But businesses need to become more engaged with educational institutions, with the workforce center, with high school vocational programs, with schools like the Launch Academy.
Only when the two sectors combine their resources and workforce strategies can Colorado Springs build on the successes and reach its full economic development potential.
It’s about improving the local economy, but it’s also about eradicating homelessness from job losses, ending reliance on food stamps and social safety networks (which many low-wage workers still need to make ends meet) and reducing crime.
As the National Cybersecurity Center opens and the city builds toward a future with thousands more residents, more businesses must come to the table to support workforce development for all levels of industry: high-tech, skilled jobs as well as vocational jobs that also provide good wages.