Jobs, prosperity at stake as Colorado manufacturers organize to advance their interests

By Bart Taylor | Mar 25, 2014

New economic realities are bringing manufacturers together across Colorado. Unlike the employee-driven efforts of an earlier generation, today’s organizers are business leaders facing new challenges to growth but who also see opportunity as the post-recession manufacturing economy takes shape.

On Colorado’s western slope, industry has led the formation of the Western Colorado Manufacturing Alliance. The WCMA is hosting the Western Colorado Manufacturers Summit April 10 in Grand Junction. Eric Goertz, VP of Operations at Capco, Inc., a western slope manufacturer, is acting chairman of the Alliance.

Goertz, an engineer by trade, is as pragmatic as he is optimistic about what’s to be gained from organizing.

“I am sure the reasons for 'why' we are working to put together manufacturing alliances may differ, but the end results should be very similar,” Goertz says. “Obviously if manufacturers band together, we can avoid duplication of efforts in a wide array of topics, from changing health care regulations to employee training programs. We can also learn best practices from each other, work to buy locally which helps bolster the local economy and workforce, speak with a unified voice and make policy changes happen if needed.”

He’s also aware of the limitations of trade groups and cautions against unrealistic expectations. “The question in my mind was, given some investment of time and talent into the local economy, specifically manufacturing, could I see an ROI from these efforts? Thus far, I will say that I have become more connected with the types of manufacturing that takes place locally, and we (Capco) are starting to use suppliers from our local market a little more than we did a year ago. I am pleased with our progress; we’re hoping the Summit is successful.”

Similar efforts are taking shape along Colorado’s Front Range. A northern Colorado manufacturing ‘partnership’ is building, as is a new alliance stretching south from Castle Rock to the New Mexico border. Led by Springs Fabrications’ founder and CEO Tom Neppl, who’s also now the industry chair for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, the Southern Colorado Regional Manufacturing Initiative will host a kick-off reception April 30 in Colorado Springs (details are being finalized), with an expo and week-long event in the works for late summer.

Neppl’s company has enjoyed strong growth the past few years including a high-profile role in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident. But he’s also keenly aware of the hard hit manufacturing endured in southern Colorado the late 2000’s, and is optimistic as to what can be gained from building closer ties throughout the community.

“The February 2014 economic report prepared for the Southern Colorado Economic Forum noted that El Paso County has lost some 13,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000,” Neppl says. “Most can be attributed to the exodus of our semi-conductor industry. Real job losses probably exceeded that. This is reason enough to increase the focus on manufacturing in our region.”

But Neppl’s also an energetic promoter of manufacturing. For him, coming together as a sector has everything to do with the opportunity - and the promise of a new manufacturing economy.

“Manufacturers typically provide above average wages and benefits. They’re also more likely to teach people technical skills that are transferable. Learning a skilled trade increases the likelihood of earning a stable paycheck and often provides opportunity for personal and professional growth.”

He adds, “Manufacturing is once again in the spotlight, and nearly every region in the world is focused on growing its manufacturing base. We should be no different. Today’s industry is a modern, tech-driven sector that provides a more stable economic base than service jobs. Manufacturing creates wealth.”

It’s hard to argue the point, and Colorado’s economic leadership certainly wouldn’t. With each month the Office of Economic Development and International Trade seems to announce a new manufacturing initiative, grant, or opportunity emanating from policy-makers or public-sector sources. Earlier this month OEDIT announced a multi-faceted initiative called the Colorado Acceleration Agenda, or COAA, that would in part establish a Technology Commercialization and Manufacturing Corridor along the Front Range from Larimer County to Pueblo. This in addition to the myriad programs coursing through economic development circles to develop workforce, procure federal dollars and generally promote ‘advanced manufacturing’.

In the end, industry’s own grassroots efforts may be as effective as government’s well-intentioned (and well-funded) top-down programs. Both should work to improve economic prospects for the region.