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Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers addresses local professionals at the formal opening of Western States College of Construction on Monday.

Western States College of Construction celebrated its Colorado Springs launch on Monday, marking the official opening of a professional apprenticeship program where students will be able to earn up to $50,000 a year while learning a highly marketable trade and potentially earning an associate's degree.

The brief ceremony, timed to coincide with National Apprentice Month, took place at the college’s Colorado Springs Sheet Metal Campus at Sheet Metal Local #9 union headquarters. Several industry leaders and local officials were on hand for the opening, including Mayor John Suthers, state Rep. Tony Exum and state Sen. Paul Lundeen.

“Today is a special day,” said Dave Davia, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association. “We’re turning all of our 10 apprenticeship centers, two of which are in the Colorado Springs market, into college campuses where students can learn the craft and also earn an associate’s degree.”

The program is a bridge between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, Davia said. Students will be able to turn apprenticeship hours into credit hours that count toward an associate’s degree.

“When an apprentice graduates, they will have a completion certificate from the Department of Labor, and also an Associate’s Degree,” Davia said.

Davia acknowledged Exum, Lundeen and other elected officials who championed a state law that made WSCC possible. House Bill 1306, a bipartisan measure signed into law this year, allows certain state entities to operate as postsecondary institutions.

“In order to do this, we had to change state law,” Davia said. “(The bill) allowed us to create this college.”

Students will serve a four- or five-year apprenticeship in the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, pipefitting or sheet metal disciplines. During this period, they will earn an average of $50,000 per year — a salary that will increase dramatically upon graduation, officials said.

“The average starting salary and benefits package for construction trades in $75,000,” Davia said.

Classes are tuition free, with students only paying about $200 per year for books and fees. Ninety percent of the learning will take place in the field, which provides an immediate opportunity for apprentices to apply what they learn in the classroom.

“Four-year universities are great, and we’re not taking anything away from them,” Davia said. “But in a traditional college, a student learns for four years, then goes out and applies their knowledge. We teach tonight, and tomorrow, you’re out there applying it.”

Suthers said the college offers prospective students an accelerated path to a satisfying and lucrative career.

“While a traditional four-year university education certainly has its benefits, there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for those who pursue a skilled trade,” Suthers said. “Those individuals are increasingly marketable – more so than ever before.”

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on many businesses and industries across the country, but the construction business has remained stable, said Nathan Cooper, executive director of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

“The construction businesses hasn’t had a significant loss of opportunities during the pandemic,” Cooper said. “There’s work out there to be had.”

Suthers said skilled trade workers are among the most sought-after employees in the country.

“Skilled trade workers are a hot commodity in today’s growing market, especially here in Colorado Springs, where construction continues to boom,” he said.

The need for qualified construction professionals promises to increase as the city’s population continues to grow, the mayor said. Colorado Springs has grown about 15% over the past decade, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.

“If a worldwide pandemic couldn’t slow down Colorado Springs’ construction marketplace, I don’t see anything on the immediate horizon that’s going to do that,” Suthers said.

To learn more about WSCC, visit www.westernstatescollege.org.

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