Workforce development will give Coloradans training for hard-to-fill tech jobs

Just over a year after he dropped out of college, Logan Parrish was working as a host at the Boulder Dinner Theater where he earned $9 an hour. Now, after a two-month crash course in basic coding, he works at the Techtonic Group in Boulder, where he makes $17 an hour developing websites.

Parrish, 21, is one of a growing number of Coloradans who chose a highly-specified training program over a four-year college degree and found a successful tech career at the end.

If there was one thing lawmakers agreed on this session, it’s that they want to see a lot more Coloradans be able to make that call — tens of thousands more.

“Why sit in a classroom for three or four years when you could be sitting in an office getting paid to learn skills and apply them?” Parrish said. 

Parrish went to a training program called SeedPaths, where founder and CEO Jeff Macco said Parrish’s experience is hardly unique. Macco said that roughly 75 percent of the students who come to SeedPaths don’t have a four-year college degree and that 78 percent of them find a job after completing the two-month coding and workforce-training program.

“I know of one Chief Technology Officer out of 100 who requires applicants to have a college degree. The other 99 do not care,” said Macco. “Their hiring is skill-based. It’s about a candidate’s overall behavior and competency as well as a strong desire to learn.”

Lawmakers in Colorado took serious note of programs like SeedPaths in passing the bipartisan workforce-development package this session.

One successful element of that package known as the WORK Act will put $10 million in a Colorado Department of Labor matching grant program that will help organizations like SeedPaths reach more potential students and grow.

The goal, said co-sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, is to start filling Colorado’s 15,000 open information-technology jobs by having companies themselves partner with training programs to produce workers with the needed skill sets.

The WORK Act, along with the bulk of the workforce development package, passed with strong bipartisan support this session — including co-sponsorship from leaders in both chambers.

Along with Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, engineered much of the effort, bringing lawmakers together at the beginning of the session to draft a fleet of bills that had bipartisan support right from the start.

Heath has been passionate about the issue of workforce development through technical training since he opened his own machine shop in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood back in the 80’s.

At the time, he and his partner cast about for local employees to fill the company’s well-paid jobs and couldn’t find anyone who was qualified to do precision machining. The duo ended up employing a large number of Vietnamese immigrants.

Nearly 30 years later, Heath says not enough has changed.

“In Colorado alone, we’ve got, by latest count, 5,000 manufacturing jobs unfilled. We just don’t have the people,” said Heath. “There’s been a growing realization that if we’re really going to bring manufacturing back, we’ve got to grow our own skilled workforce, all the technicians. To do that we need to literally integrate the high school curriculum going into community college with on-the-job training.”

Per Heath’s vision, many of the workforce bills will do just that. There’s a measure that would allow high school students to apprentice in technology and manufacturing and graduate with an associates degree without paying a penny. There’s even a bill to create “mobile learning labs” equipped to teach in-demand skills in the parking lots of community colleges and hiring companies.

Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, was another big supporter of workforce development this year, in part because he has seen his own son’s success in a technical program offered by another state.

“I think we all realized there’s got to be an opportunity for folks who are doing something different than going to college,” said Cadman. “In a global economy and marketplace, if those who aren’t going to college can’t compete, then frankly they won’t be contributors to society. They’ll be dependent on it. We found a real, mutual commitment to filling that gap.”

But Heath said it will take more than a few good bills and bipartisan agreement among lawmakers to make all this workforce development function. To a surprising degree the measure’s focus on recruitment and on getting the word out. That’s because, Heath says, Americans are in need of a big cultural shift when it comes to the ubiquity of a four-year college degree.

“You don’t have to spend $100,000 to get a college degree,” said Heath. “You can get your associates degree, do your apprenticeship and become a skilled technician in many fields and have a very good, well-paid career. You can have a very good middle-class life.”

Image by Marjan Krebelj

Correction: SeedPaths is for profit. 

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