A new initiative among local school districts and employers aims to create a talent pipeline in Colorado Springs.
The Pikes Peak Business & Education Alliance is a workforce development collaboration between 12 school districts in the Pikes Peak region and local businesses, said Bob Gemignani, the workplace learning manager for El Paso County School District 49 and PPBEA co-chairperson.
“The problem our education community realized in the last three or four years is that because of the number of school districts in El Paso County, our ability to communicate effectively to businesses is very fragmented,” Gemignani said. “And it causes businesses in the community to become extremely fatigued when approached by all the districts.”
The alliance formed unofficially about a year ago out of informal gatherings of local school districts’ career technical directors, Gemignani said.
“The conversations were about trying to find ways we could work together because of these redundancies and fragmentation between districts and businesses,” he said.
Gemignani said the catalyst for creating the alliance was his being hired in July of last year to develop D49’s workplace learning program.
“When I started attending those informal meetings, the conversations accelerated and deepened because now there was somebody within the districts highly focused on the business-facing aspect of things,” he said.
One of Gemignani’s initial tasks was creating D49’s workplace learning marketplace, which is an online platform similar to Indeed.com, where businesses can share employment-based opportunities, such as field trips and internships.
“It’s a really effective, repeatable and scalable platform for us to communicate between our business partners and our classrooms,” Gemignani said. “And basically, D49 leadership realized that the workplace learning program and marketplace we developed were too valuable to not share.”
The school district is allowing the alliance to use the program and website during its soft-launch period while a memorandum of understanding is developed and signed to make PPBEA official.
“We have 12 school districts that have verbally committed to the collaboration but that’s from director-level folks,” Gemignani said. “In order for PPBEA to become a real thing, the superintendents from all the districts are going to have to sign on to a memorandum of understanding.”
Ideally, he said the memorandum will be done in the next two to three months and then the alliance can officially launch at the start of the next school year.
“We will need to rebrand or build a new website because the one we are using right now during the soft launch is the D49 site, but that’s going to cost some money,” Gemignani said. “We need to have that official sign-on or memorandum. We need to be funded.”
The goal is for the alliance to be hosted under the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Gemignani said.
“That’s an educational structure or tax structure, which is a nonprofit, that allows the collaboration of school districts to operate programs in partnership with each other,” he said.
The primary strategy of the alliance is the consolidation of workplace learning and training programs throughout the districts, Gemignani said.
“Instead of having 14 school districts contacting multiple businesses and industries in the Colorado Springs area, we will have one organization that is the point of contact between all of the school districts and all of our business partners,” he said.
The alliance plans to consolidate the advisory councils that are a requirement of each district’s career pathway programs into unified community boards.
“Right now, each one of those pathways and career tech ed programs at each district has to have a business advisory council that meets twice per year,” Gemignani said. “We are going to combine that all into a single advisory council, which is going to help improve businesses’ ability to inform curriculum throughout the entire community. The goal is to construct our own talent pipeline in Colorado Springs.”
Yemi Mobolade, the vice president of business retention and expansion for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said it was an easy decision for the organization to partner with PPBEA.
“When I discovered this alliance, I just knew it would help solve a lot of problems,” he said. “A big part of my work is helping businesses work on the obstacles that hinder their growth, and as you can imagine, the workforce remains their No. 1 obstacle.”
Mobolade said last year that the organization received feedback from an outside consultant that the area’s hefty number of school districts is potentially a hindrance for its workforce development efforts.
“Most communities do not have as many school districts as we do,” he said. “We have begun to share information about the alliance with our stakeholders, and the response has been beyond favorable because that’s what business people like to do. They cut through the noise and get to the heart of the issue and do something about it.”
Initially, PPBEA is focusing on four industries that have high workforce demand in the area: registered nurses and related health care positions; IT, computer science and cybersecurity; skilled crafts and trades; and culinary and hospitality.
“The fact that we have decided to initially target these top demanded occupations in industries in our community is a real key component of our success right now because we are helping those businesses solve a problem,” Gemignani said. “They can’t solve their talent shortage problem alone so they are very attracted to our initiative because we are helping them connect with students to attract them into those careers.”
Doug Rhoda, the CEO of Diversified Machine Systems, said the success of the advanced manufacturing company hinges on having a good workforce.
“Things like this alliance and the relationships we have with UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College are really key to getting pipelines of talent,” he said. “We intend to grow the business and in my opinion the key constraint to growth is having enough of the right people to hire.”
Rhoda wants to start small by creating a few internships for area high school students at the company.
“But I could imagine it becoming like 10 students a year and even more as we grow as a business,” he said.
Having a unified organization of area school districts for the business community to coordinate with makes having high school-level internships more feasible, Rhoda said.
“Running businesses, you are very busy all the time,” he said. “When you can minimize and clarify the interfaces, it just makes everything more efficient.”
Moving forward, Gemignani said the alliance wants to add Harrison School District 2 and Woodland Park School District Re-2 as well.
“I don’t think they’re not collaborating because they don’t like the idea; those districts are going through a lot of change right now,” he said. “But, the goal is to bring all of them on board and then who knows how far something like this can go. There are 17 school districts that can see Pikes Peak.”
Right now, the D49 marketplace has about 45 active businesses with roughly 150 unique sponsored workplace learning opportunities, Gemignani said.
“And that’s growing every week,” he said, adding those businesses already have agreed to partner with PPBEA as well.
Recently, the alliance had its first cross-district placement with an Academy School District 20 student receiving an internship at Tri-Lakes Cares, which previously was just a Lewis-Palmer School District 38 business partner.
Lori Benton, executive director of learning services for D38, said the district’s communications department also has a paid internship posted on the D49 marketplace.
“Students from other districts can apply for that and work in our district, which is a great learning opportunity for them to see how another district does things,” she said. “By doing PPBEA, it basically opens up a variety of opportunities across district boundaries.”
Additionally, the alliance gives students options beyond a minimum-wage job while in high school, Benton said.
“This allows us as a region to support our own workforce development “ she said. “It also let kids see what these different industries look like, because they are changing rapidly.”
Gemignani said other businesses interested in joining PPBEA can visit d49.org to submit an online application.
“If a business is interested, we would love to hear from them,” he said. “I think this is a really cool development in our community that can only help economic vitality here. It’s really something that’s going to help businesses attract and train the talent they need.”