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Training in transition

Manufacturing did not disappear; it just changed. There has been much offshoring over the years, but companies are still making things in Colorado.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment (CDLE), in December 2012 there were 5,311 manufacturing establishments employing 133,400 people in the state. That’s an increase of 4,000 workers compared to December 2011.

Wade Troxell, mechanical engineering professor and associate dean for research and economic development in the College of Engineering at Colorado State University, says manufacturing has become so important that President Barack Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address in February.

“There is a lot of innovation in creating new ways of making things,” Troxell says. “A lot of transition is happening. Manufacturing now is high-tech, using new innovative processes.”

Part of the transition relates to the new workers. Instead of pulling levers, many of today’s manufacturing workers are programming computers, working on computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines or troubleshooting software. Others are performing more traditional hands-on tasks such as welding, soldering and electrical work.

Area employers are having trouble finding both types of workers.

“When the country started outsourcing manufacturing, we stopped training,” says Geri Anderson, vice president for academic and student services and provost for the Colorado Community College System. “Now the industry is coming back to Colorado, and it’s no longer Laverne and Shirley or Lucy with the chocolates.”

Anderson acknowledges that the references to decades-old television programs may be lost on millennials. So is any hint that manufacturing is now high-tech or interesting. “We have not communicated that to our young people,” she says. “So now we have this huge skills gap.”

Employers are struggling to find people with the right skill sets, agreed Aleta Sherman, regional director for Northern Colorado for the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology (CAMT).

“The types of jobs that are hardest for them to fill run on either end of the spectrum,” she says, citing a 2012 survey that Workforce Boulder County conducted among 30 manufacturing companies. Employers are having the most trouble finding engineers, followed by machine operators and skilled tradespeople.

Also according to the survey, 90 percent of the companies expect to grow 5 percent to 20 percent over the next year. So where will they, and other Colorado firms, find workers? Some are partnering with colleges and universities to make sure graduates have skills that match the manufacturers’ needs.

Kids today

Jeff Popiel, president and CEO of Geotech Environmental Equipment in Denver, says one problem is that most schools don’t emphasize manual tasks anymore. “When we were in school we had trade-skills classes such as machining, automotive and woodworking,” Popiel says. “Then everything was sent overseas.”

Some manufacturing is being re-shored to the U.S. as offshore workers’ wages are growing, shipping charges are increasing and in some cases, quality control is lacking. Other manufacturing never went to developing countries because it needs advanced technology, not low wage, low skilled workers. Either way, as the jobs are created, certain skills are becoming important, and schools need to teach these skills, Popiel says.

One effort is House Bill 1165, which would create a manufacturing career pathway for students. The bill, which is currently in the Appropriations Committee, would require collaboration among the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE), the Department of Higher Education (DHE), the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), and the CDLE in designing this career pathway, which would have to be available for students beginning with the 2014-15 academic year.

In the meantime, colleges and universities and local manufacturers say they are training students for these manufacturing jobs, which according to the CDLE pay an average weekly wage of $1,140.


School is in
“Manufacturing really shrank in Colorado over a number of years and the number of programs in community colleges dried up,” says Andy Dorsey, president of Front Range Community College. “Manufacturing is coming back around and we are responding and reopening programs in conjunction with manufacturers to get the right mix of students back out.”

FRCC reintroduced its precision machining program, which it had shuttered six years ago. “What we’re hearing from the industry is that not only do folks need training in how to use machines, but they need measurement, metrics, basic mathematical skills and process control,” Dorsey says. He adds that FRCC’s welding program has doubled over the last six years, partly due to the oil and gas industry, and also as a result of partnerships with local manufacturers such as Fort Collins-based Wolf Robotics.

“We hear manufacturers bemoan the lack of skilled welders, but we have been fortunate,” says Doug Rhoda, president and CEO of Wolf Robotics. “We try to be proactive with relationships with Front Range Community College and CSU.  We are working closely with them on their curricula and hiring students and interns.”

Other schools are boosting their manufacturing-related offerings. Red Rocks Community College added two labs for programmable logic controller (PLC) classes. Rich Thatcher, department head for the electrical program for RRCC, says there is demand for skills related to using automated equipment. “The industry drives what I teach,” he says. “About 50 percent of our students are employer funded.”

RRCC also has seen an influx of students in electrical classes and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) classes. Those skills are needed to make a manufacturing facility run smoothly, says Larry Snyder, chair of the Carpentry, HVAC, Electrical, Fine Woodworking, Plumbing, and Water Quality departments. “The specialized training is something the employer will pay for,” he says. Additionally, there has been an increase in interest in soldering and OSHA training.

Matt Starr, chief technology officer of Spectra Logic in Boulder, says soldering is in demand at the data storage company. “Solder technicians are highly valued,” he says. “They can solder metal the thickness of human hair. That’s a very specialized skill set, versus broad skill sets we can use in other parts of the line that need a couple hours of training.”

The bigger areas are still welding and machining. Pueblo Community College built four mobile learning labs that bring non-credit technical training to Elbert, El Paso and Teller counties. Each of the 48-foot mobile labs is outfitted to teach welding, manufacturing, mechanical systems or electrical systems.

Amanda Corum, director of operations, says PCC also received a grant to build three additional mobile labs for welding, electrical systems and mechanical systems. “We are in the process of building these labs,” she says. “Once complete they will be moved to Southwest Colorado to support oil, gas and mining employers at our Durango and Mancos campuses.”

Some skills are so specialized that the training must be customized. Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, says UCCS recently partnered with a company that needed engineers to work on very esoteric software. “There are some very technical areas in engineering where there are shortages, but only three or four jobs available,” she says. “I cannot put in a degree program for four jobs, but if we have people with strong engineering backgrounds, the company can train people in that highly specialized area.”

UCCS also has programs to fill more common manufacturing needs such as robotics, process controls, systems engineering and quality control. One new program is the Bachelor of Innovation degree, which combines engineering and business management.

Hector Carrasco, dean of the College of Education, Engineering and Professional Studies (CEEPS) at Colorado State University Pueblo, says two engineering programs that have seen increased enrollment are the Bachelor of Science in Engineering with a Mechatronics specialization and the Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. “Graduates are designing the manufacturing systems, and they are in there making sure things are operating well,” he says.

Dorsey, from Front Range Community College, echoes the other experts when he points out one more skill that all are trying to teach. “Students need to understand teamwork and soft skills such as showing up on time and how you fit into the workplace,” he says. “That’s true for all jobs. The soft skills are at least as important as the technical skills.”

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Nora Caley

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics.

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