Colorado’s jobs paradox - high unemployment but a lack of skilled labor - bedevils manufacturers.

By Bart Taylor | Sep 16, 2013

You’ve seen the numbers: Colorado’s unemployment remains high by recent standards, roughly 7%, with about 40,000 fewer people employed today than in March 2008, when employment peaked at 2,611,357. Certainly the job picture’s improved from the dreadful period culminating October 2010 when the unemployment rate hit 9.1%, but today’s number remains stubbornly high, inching up again only recently:

(Department of Numbers data)

One might reasonable guess that today, employers benefit from a deep labor pool with plenty of qualified workers to choose from. And while this may be the case in certain industry sectors, manufacturers here are challenged to find qualified employees.

This manufacturing ‘skills-gap’ has become a common theme in the business profiles we’ve published in only four issues of CompanyWeek. When asked about his challenges, Taylor Merritt, CFO at Merritt Equipment Co. in Henderson, was unequivocal. "Skilled workforce is the first thing that comes to mind. Manufacturing has a horrible image. People think it's dirty, it's hard work, and there's no potential for a career.”

Jeff Popiel, CEO at Geotech Environment Equipment echoed the sentiment. "Hiring people with the right skill set and mindset that see manufacturing as a a challenge.” In this week’s issue, Bill Sails of EarthRoamer adds, "One of our biggest challenges is finding skilled, good employees…”.

No manufacturing sector may be as challenged on the labor front as the apparel business, where for many re-shoring jobs remains only a worthy idea, despite the efforts of some Colorado manufacturers, like Janksa in Colorado Springs. “It is challenging to compete on price with companies that manufacture offshore,” says Jan Erickson, CEO and founder. “Instead of pennies per hour, we are paying a modest, but livable wage. We have not, however, been able to offer the benefits that I believe our skilled sewers need and deserve.”

For Erickson and others in the apparel trade, the challenge amounts to no less than rebuilding a viable workforce. “When everything went offshore in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of those sewers went to other kinds of jobs. So far we’ve done fine, but I think a lot of those skilled workers are gone who were here 20 years ago.”

So where to go from here? At the behest of industry and with the support of Colorado’s occupational educators, especially, this past spring lawmakers passed legislation designed to better align curriculum with the needs of industry. As described in today’s issue of CompanyWeek by Ben Nesbitt, Program Director with the Colorado Community College System, HB13-1165 authorized the creation of a “Manufacturing Career Pathway...designed to provide efficient and economical on ramps for individuals interested in pursuing careers in the manufacturing sector.” It’s a promising development, even if tangible benefits of HB-1165 remain a ways off.

Of course tomorrow’s classrooms must be filled with students compelled to pursue careers in manufacturing. For this to happen, the manufacturing ‘brand’ must evolve to better reflect the progressive bent of people and companies driving its growth here, in Colorado. As Geotech’s Jeff Popiel notes, "This is where the state and the city are coming in, trying to rebrand manufacturing."

I agree there’s high awareness. Denver's Office of Economic Development, in particular, is intent on 'messaging' around manufacturing - and for good reason. The city's identified the sector as key to its growth strategy, understanding that employers would benefit from a growing, MFG-inclined urban workforce.

But industry can't - and shouldn't - rely on government efforts alone. The challenge now is to ensure that effort and influence trickle down from those at the top of the manufacturing food-chain to small business who lack resources and need help to retool today's workforce. Is Big-Manufacturing engaged? More on that later.