That "help wanted" sign seems to be going increasingly unanswered in a number of fields.

Low unemployment rates nationally and statewide are good news for job seekers. But industries from construction to hospitality to health care are struggling to fill jobs.

"Most districts cited on-going labor market tightness and challenges finding qualified workers across skills and sectors," says the Federal Reserve's latest Beige Book, a snapshot of economic conditions across the country.

New alliances and new ways to train workers are tackling the problem. Companies unable to fill openings can lose business, but those struggles have broader implications. Labor shortages are expected to hinder the state's economic growth this year, according to the Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2018 released last month by the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

At the national level, "these shortages are undermining U.S. competitiveness and often result in companies shifting or maintaining their operations abroad," says a white paper written by Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum, on "Workforce & the Skills Gap." Those shortages encompass high- and middle-skills jobs, she wrote - and they could become even worse in the next few years.

Bailey points to several reasons for the shortages, from a fading role by unions to an aging workforce.

"For most of the 20th century, unions played a very prominent role in the formation of career ladders, not only because they ensured higher wages but because they were tied to on-the-job training, apprenticeships, internships and so forth," she said. But this "built-in mechanism to train people" has largely gone away; union membership, which peaked at more than 30 percent of all U.S. workers in 1954, is down to 12 percent today. At the same time, schools began abandoning middle-skills training such as carpentry and mechanics, though that pendulum is starting to swing the other way, Bailey said.

A rapidly changing, high-tech environment has also taken a toll. Millions of workers left the workforce during the Great Recession; the reason they often state for not returning is they don't have the skills, Bailey said. Meanwhile, the cost of university-level training, once "relatively affordable," has soared, she said.

Adding to the problem: the wave of baby boom retirees. From 2010 to 2016, Colorado's 65+ population grew at an annual average rate of 5 percent, vs. 1.5 percent for the general population. "Due to the aging of the population, Colorado will experience faster growth in the industries supporting the 65+ population, like health care," the Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2018 states. "However, Colorado will also experience faster growth in leavers from the labor force as many retire."

The construction industry, in particular, is experiencing a "silver tsunami" from the retirement of baby boomers, the report said.

Seeking solutions

The lack of skilled labor drove creation of the Workforce Asset Map (WAM.uccs.edu), a comprehensive online tool for job seekers and employers that launched last year. Students are guided to high school career track programs and higher education programs; job seekers can find apprenticeships and internships, along with information on the job market and tips on resume writing, interviewing and the like. And for employers, there is information on labor supply, how to develop internships and apprenticeships and how to better plug into the community.

Bailey led the push to develop the site after the writing of her white paper and an accompanying panel discussion at the 2015 UCCS Economic Forum; the effort encompassed the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, the city of Colorado Springs, El Paso County, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Community College, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC, Harrison School District 2 and more.

"As an economist, one of the reasons I wanted to do that is so much of this is just this simple mismatch between supply and demand," Bailey said.

One entity working to ease that mismatch is the Harrison School District. "They have a very robust career track program and they are growing it all the time," Bailey said.

Harrison's Career Readiness Academy is "a school inside a school" at Sierra High School. Academy programs include automotive mechanics, construction technology, cosmetology and aeronautics and technology; medical tech, cybersecurity and culinary arts were added this school year. The CRA partners with the International Salon and Spa Academy, Pikes Peak Community College and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology,

When deciding what programs to add, "I try to think about the job market, what's out there, what are going to be up and coming fields for people to go into," principal Damon DiFabio said. In all the programs, the students work toward certification.

"We like all students to be career or college ready," DiFabio said.

Like Bailey, DiFabio sees a resurgence of vocational training. "I think a lot of schools did away with their vocation areas; now it's all starting to come back. And it's a good thing, because not every student fits into that same box."

The Career Readiness Academy was the first to join the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs' Careers in Construction program, which began in 2015 and provides pre-apprenticeship training for ninth- through 12th-grade students; the program now encompasses four districts and six high schools.

"The program came from a group of industry leaders getting together and identifying the labor shortage and the need for younger adults, particularly high school students, to be exposed to opportunities in the trade programs," program coordinator April Hess said.

Some students in the program were at work last month helping remodel the HBA's offices. "They're hungry and eager to get into the industry, and our industry is eager to hire them as well," Hess said.

Many of the students have come a long way, said Jeff Stuber, construction technology instructor at the Career Readiness Academy. "Some of the kids hadn't ever picked up a screwdriver before."

Another local program, Career Boost (careerboostco.org), is designed to fill jobs in manufacturing, information technology and child development by providing accelerated training to underemployed and undereducated people in the community. The program, a collaboration between Pikes Peak Community College, School District 11 Adult & Family Education and the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, launched last fall with the help of a grant from the state Department of Labor and Employment.

"We worked very closely with the Workforce Center to target the industries in our area that have shortages," said Melissa Burkhardt-Shields, director of D-11 Adult & Family Education. The program, she said, is designed to serve people with less than a 12th-grade education or those with a high school diploma but are still "deficient in some of their basic skills."

One distinctive feature of the program, Burkhardt-Shields said, is the use of I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program), an educational model that integrates adult education practices and skills training and is new to Colorado. "In our courses we have two instructors; one instructor is the technical skills instructor and the other is the basic skills instructor," she said. "So if students get into courses and some of the reading or math is too difficult, they have teachers working together to help them."

Six-week introductory classes are free; additional classes are $50 to $75 each, and financial assistance is available. Classes are offered evenings and weekends.

Nurses and engineers

Another shortage plaguing Colorado is a lack of nurses - a shortage that will get worse with the retirement of nurses born during the baby boom.

"It's kind of a cyclical thing," said Jeff Johnson, vice president of human resources at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. During the Great Recession, "people were holding off on retiring because of uncertainty," he said. "Now people are more apt to retire, so it's making sure you have enough people to replace those retirees. Also in Colorado Springs, we're seeing significant growth in our population, and that equates to more of a need for health care as well."

In dealing with the shortage, "there's not a silver bullet," Johnson said. "So you have to have a lot of different strategies." One approach: grow your own. So Memorial is working closely with Pikes Peak Community College and UCCS to figure out how they can increase the number of students they take, Johnson said, while also expanding the number of clinical rotations Memorial can handle.

Another approach, he said, is recruiting from out of state; not all parts of the nation are struggling with a nursing shortage. So Memorial is looking at targeted marketing across the country, highlighting, for example, the quality of life in Colorado Springs.

But the lure of the great outdoors and similar factors only go so far, Johnson acknowledged; Memorial also has to stay competitive from a pay standpoint. "It's definitely something you have to monitor."

"Grow your own" is also an approach taken by Cosmic Advanced Engineered Solutions in Colorado Springs.

Finding the right people - particularly people with security clearances - is a constant challenge, CEO Carol Zanmiller said.

"I thought we could capture a lot more engineers that were getting out of the Air Force as captains, but they're harder to find than I thought," she said. So while, ideally, she would be bringing on people with a decade or so of experience, Cosmic AES is also bringing on new talent through an internship program.

Most of its interns come from UCCS. Typically, four interns are brought on at the start of the summer, between their junior and senior years; they work full time through the summer, then eight hours or so a week during the school year. "That allows us to put in for clearances as they come into the intern program and gives us about a year of time in the clearance queue," Zanmiller said.

While not all turn out to be a good fit, Cosmic AES has gone on to hire most of its interns, she said.

"I tell my interns that this is your opportunity to look everywhere and you should take that opportunity," Zanmiller said. "It's hard to lose people, but I also understand it."

Internships, apprenticeships and other on-the-job training have been in place for decades, Bailey writes in her paper, but she notes "a new and somewhat different emphasis" by companies today in closing the workforce and skills gap. She also points to the benefits when multiple employers in a region or industry partner with each other and educational institutions on workforce initiatives and training.

Many of the area initiatives are in line with what Bailey lists as "best practices," such as targeting underserved populations and integrating classroom education with actual or simulated work settings.

"The skills gap is a serious problem," she said. "The cities that are proactively addressing this will be the cities doing well going forward."

Load comments