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Pikes Peak Community College program pays for training interns in technology, manufacturing, construction

December 18, 2016 Updated: December 18, 2016 at 8:42 am
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Emerson Hauptili examines medical implant devices Monday, December 5, 2016 at Relius Medical. Hauptili is a former intern at Relius who now is employed there. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Relius Medical LLC can't find enough qualified workers to fill its openings, so the Colorado Springs-based contract medical device manufacturer has started to grow its own.

No, the company isn't cloning workers. Instead, Relius is using a state-funded internship program to hire students from Pikes Peak Community College for up to six months as a trial period during which the intern and the company can determine whether a longer-term relationship will work for both. So far, it has - Relius has hired two of the three interns funded under the state's Innovative Industries internship program to work full time in permanent positions in the company's engineering and quality control operations; the third is still in the school.

"We can't find enough of the talent we need here. That is why we work so hard at programs like this. We have to find and develop talent. We have a real talent shortage in Colorado Springs," said Eric Knutson, chief financial officer of Relius. "One of the biggest challenges for us has been personnel. We have to look for every resource to get them."

Relius is one of nine Colorado Springs-area companies to get grants this year that funded training for 17 internships. The grants pay up to $5,000 per intern for at least 130 hours of on-the-job training over a maximum of six months in the advanced manufacturing, aerospace, bioscience, construction, electronics, energy and natural resources, engineering or information technology industries. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment will accept applications Jan. 1-Feb. 15 for a second round of grants for training for up to 125 internships.

Emerson Hauptili, a computer-aided drafting student at PPCC, worked for three months as an intern at Relius and learned about all parts of the company's manufacturing operation before he was hired full time by the company to work in its engineering operation. He expects to receive an associate degree next year.

Constituents cite need

The program was created by legislation sponsored by state Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and signed into law last year by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The program, which is authorized through 2020 but is subject to annual appropriations, paid for more than $800,000 in training for 178 interns at 102 companies statewide. The interns earned an average hourly wage of $14.71, which is paid by the participating companies. The labor department has requested nearly $600,000 in spending for the program in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The program requires students to be trained in two of eight areas including computer systems, software development or information technology support; production, fabrication, assembly or quality assurance; engineering; business and financial operations such as supply chain management; customer service, sales, marketing and proposal development; research, preclinical and commercial development; installation, maintenance and repair of machinery and equipment, or any skilled trade. Interns cannot be a current or past employee of a company that receives a grant under the program.

"This is an apprenticeship/internship program that helps companies with some of their training costs and trains the interns with marketable skills," Lee said. "I had heard on the campaign trail that there were manufacturing jobs available that couldn't be filled for lack of qualified applicants, so this bill was in response to that."

Relius was started two years ago by Lauralee Martin, former CEO of HCP Inc., a California-based real estate investment trust that owns $12.5 billion in health care properties nationwide. It acquired the assets of the defunct contract medical device manufacturer Magnum Tool Co. Inc. Relius employs 125, including many former Magnum employees, to make parts such as surgical nails for about a dozen medical device companies and has just built a clean room to manufacture more advanced products for its clients.

The company received a variety of grants from the state to train the former Magnum employees in various parts of quality assurance, using computer-aided cutting machines and other job-related tasks for medical device manufacturing and also plans to apply for the next round of internship grants, Knutson said.

"We need to find talented employees to do this work. It starts with finding people who want to do this type of work, so we hire interns to develop our own. That takes time, failure and money, but it gets us devoted employees in the end," Knutson said. "Finding the right people is about making sure you have the right fit, opportunities for advancement, compensation and many other elements. Fit is the most difficult. You have to find somebody who wants to do this kind of work. We have found some incredibly talented people, and some of them have later left."

Intern pipeline

About half of the interns in the first year of the program were students at PPCC, studying either electronics technology or computer-aided drafting. The school could provide "many more" interns to local companies since it has about 70 students enrolled in the two programs, said Jason Nahrgang, manager of the college's Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program grant that was used to upgrade equipment to train students to operate advanced tools.

JPM Prototype & Manufacturing Inc. also got a grant under the Innovative Industries program to train two interns, one of whom was hired to work part time in the Colorado Springs-based company's quality assurance department, while the other is still in school, said Dave Jeffrey, JPM's president and owner.

"The program was a great opportunity for both us and the students. The grant allows us to train employees and have the state pay for it and allows the interns see if they like the company" enough to work there after the internship ends, Jeffrey said. "Even if they don't end up working for us, they get better acquainted with manufacturing and may someday need a prototype and will think of us for that. We have built our business through word of mouth from engineers, so the process of hiring them as interns works well even if they don't become employees."

Bryan Construction Inc. of Colorado Springs used a grant for the program this year to train three of the 10-12 interns it hires each summer as part of its efforts to recruit potential employees, said Scott Bryan, owner and CEO of the general contractor that employs more than 120 along the Front Range.

Internships "are like an incubator for future employees to grow the company. If we like an intern, we will hire them full time. It is how we maintain our culture. We prefer hiring interns rather than hiring people from other companies because you can develop the culture in them at the beginning," Bryan said. "We have a 10-year employee who starts as an intern and is now a project manager. We have hired a number of employees that way. We have to give our interns a taste of the business, working in the office, in the field and in estimating."


Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

Twitter @wayneheilman

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