Paul Nielsen and Samuel Elliott of Tejon Tech work out of the Quad Innovation Space.

Innovation has long been a buzzword in business. But even before businesses are formed, local higher education institutions are finding new ways to make sure graduates have the skills the Colorado Springs business community needs — both to guarantee a properly trained workforce and to retain graduates in the local business community.

“We’re all in this together,” said UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy. “We need to work together to make graduates stronger, make them better employees, better entrepreneurs and great leaders.”

And UCCS is creating new programs to make sure the university is working closely with businesses.

One is a co-op program where students alternate between a year of studies and a year working at local businesses.

“The company will know the student is a keeper,” Reddy said. “It might take six or seven years for the student to finish their degree, but they walk out debt-free because they worked full-time at the company. The company benefits because they get educated employees who are already thinking from that company’s perspective.”

Reddy is currently in discussions with local companies to find student placements and said it could be live as soon as next fall.

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“It needs to be set up right, because if it fails, nobody will want to touch it,” he said.

UCCS is also working with local health care organizations like UCHealth, Centura and Kaiser Permanente to address the severe nursing shortage.

Solutions include increasing scholarships and working directly with Pikes Peak Community College, where many health care students get their first instruction before transferring to a four-year school, he said.

“We’re talking with Memorial Hospital about hiring students and supporting them while they finish their education,” he said.

Coders needed

In addition to health services, Reddy said the local workforce is demanding more trained engineers and those with business degrees.

Tom Christensen has been a physics instructor at UCCS for more than a quarter century and is the director of UCCSTeach, a university program started in 2010. It is designed to better prepare future secondary science and math teachers.

Due to a shortage of qualified science, technology, engineering and math instructors, UCCS encourages those who have already worked in those fields to consider education careers.

The univerisity has adapted the program to put more emphasis on engineering, thanks to a larger, national conversation regarding the shortage of qualified engineers in the U.S., Christensen said.

About 54 students have graduated and become teachers through the accelerated program, which can have candidates in front of a class within a year.

This year’s program has a total of 128 students enrolled and, through the College of Engineering, the university added a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Education degree last fall, which will put additional emphasis on creating engineering educators to meet demand.

Christensen said one track yet still needed at UCCS is in coding and computer science, especially considering the city’s emphasis on its cybersecurity industry.

“It’s possible that could happen soon,” he said. “I think we’ll see developments in that area.”

Retaining talent

Only 12 percent of Colorado College’s Class of 2020 will be Colorado residents, according to Megan Nicklaus, director for the Colorado College Career Center. So the college looks at workforce development and talent retention a bit differently.

“We’re really working with students to develop problem-solvers and critical thinkers,” Nicklaus said. “Those core skills allow students to contribute to the business community, and we connect with area employers in a variety of industries to understand what needs are.”

The college, which operates on an 18-day block system, also provides half-blocks, where students get exposure to different industries.

One half-block course meant to respond to workforce needs is the college’s Computer Language as Language class, which aims to create computer literate individuals who can act as a bridge between technical teams and those they serve.

As for keeping talent in the Springs, Nicklaus said the college doesn’t have any formal strategies and expects much of the student body to disperse upon graduation. But in the four years she has worked at Colorado College, Nicklaus said she’s seen a change.

“More students have a desire at graduation to stay in Colorado Springs. That was not the case four years ago,” she said.

The next step

Those who graduate from Regis University’s Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions at its Colorado Springs campus already have a leg-up, thanks to the region’s defense presence.

“As we know, we have a great need for mental health professionals in this community,” said Patti Diffee, clinical administrative coordinator within the college’s Division of Counseling and Family Therapy, “and specifically because of our large military population.”

Diffee, a Regis graduate, said the college reached out to veterans, active duty members and their spouses to learn about “how to meet the real-world needs of military service members and families” and that the Colorado Springs campus is focused on family therapy based on their responses.

Many graduates from the program go on to work for local behavioral health organizations, such as Cedar Springs Hospital and AspenPointe, but also have the training to adapt to many behavioral health fields, she said.

Part of their community efforts is increased collaboration among local colleges and universities.

“We have seen a really concerted effort to collaborate with local institutions of higher education,” Diffee said. “We’ve presented to Colorado College; we’ve collaborated with UCCS. None of them offer emergent family therapy as a degree. That’s what sets us apart and makes us unique and allows us to collaborate — we’re not competing. We can make a bigger impact as a group.”

The next step should be a formal cohort allowing colleges and universities, including institutions in Pueblo, to come together and discuss workforce needs, programming gaps and how to work together to fill those.

The Quad

One answer to the collaboration question is the Quad Innovation Partnership.

Following a few years of summer programs, the partnership is about to launch its first academic year piloting model.

A collaboration between Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy, The Quad was created partly to keep more local graduates in Colorado Springs.

The Quad’s focus is on innovation and entrepreneurship, and it challenges participants to solve problems.

Jacob Eichengreen, executive director of Quad Innovation Partnership, said part of the mission is making sure those about to graduate or those who recently graduated are “market-ready.”

The Quad works closely with the business community, Eichengreen said, to develop opportunities for students to be innovative while simultaneously doing work that’s important to business.

“Here’s a hypothetical example: Let’s say a business has a warehousing need, and it’s running into an issue in its supply chain,” he said. “We offer that challenge to the students, who look at the inventory system and identify bottlenecks. If they can eliminate the need for another warehouse, that’s a massive impact for someone to have right outside of school.”

The program’s structure allows it to be agile, Eichengreen said, adding it leverages the collective expertise of the faculty at each involved institution.

“Staff support keeps students on track,” he said. “And we can identify a faculty member with the most relevance to the field from a collective set of faculty, which is really exciting. And we get agility from the four schools because we’re able to build in conjunction with what businesses need. With the depth of our four partners, there is an expert on just about everything somewhere in the system.”

Eichengreen said he’s heard comparisons to business incubators or accelerators around the country, but few have access to such a variety of expertise in higher education, and the point of the Quad isn’t necessarily to create a company that will sell one day.

“We’re a leadership accelerator,” he said. “We have far more individuals who have the right pieces to create a startup company, but they’re not ready to make that leap.” n CSBJ