Colorado awards $27M in grants to grow workforce-development programs

A construction crew works in downtown Denver in March.

State officials awarded $27 million to 46 organizations Thursday in the first phase of grants through the Opportunity Now Colorado program that is designed to enhance workforce-development pipelines at a time of significant labor shortage across industries.

Many of the grants focused on new programs to train teachers and health-care professionals, two sectors hit hard by pandemic defections that have yet to recover needed personnel. But several also went to organizations working with educational institutions to generate more employees in skilled trades like construction, and some recipient programs are aimed at producing the next generation of information-technology workers.

The second-largest grant, for example, went to Western States College of Construction — a joint effort between the Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association, labor groups and construction firms to train students at eight centers statewide for industry careers. Having just graduated its first class of students, it received a $3.36 million Opportunity Now grant that will allow it to scale up by increasing recruitment activities through school districts and community organizations, hiring more instructors and re-establishing a pre-apprenticeship program to help K-12 students learn more about the trades.

“The Opportunity Now Colorado grant process truly demonstrated that Coloradans are committed to working together to provide innovative new professional development opportunities and connect Coloradans to high-quality jobs,” said Barbary Myrick, President of B&M Construction of Colorado Springs and a selection committee member, in a news release. “The opportunity to support their work will accelerate the impact of these programs and make a difference in communities across the state.”

Origins of Opportunity Now Colorado

Colorado companies have struggled for many years to find the workforce needed to expand and grow jobs, but the labor shortage has become particularly acute since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. State employers continue to have roughly two openings for every unemployed Coloradan, and many say the limited number of applicants they get don’t have the specific skills needed for today’s jobs.

The Opportunity Now program, the centerpiece of a three-bill workforce-development package in the 2022 legislative session, was designed to aid organizations that work in collaboration to create new recruitment and training pathways to benefit wide swaths of state residents.

Legislators continued workforce-development efforts this year by passing bills, supported by business groups, that offer free training for jobs in the most labor-challenged industries and by creating $1,500 scholarships available to members of the 2023-24 high-school graduating class.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference in March about two workforce-development bills he supported this legislative session.

While many of the 425 Opportunity Now grant applications submitted by some 1,000 education and industry partners focused on training for one or two industries, some proposed broader workforce-development centers designed to meet a range of needs for local companies.

Examples of grant recipients

Western States College was one of five recipients of “scale” grants — regional partnerships seeking to upskill a significant number of workers for better-paying jobs. Other recipients included an expansion of the BuildStrong Academy of Colorado program to provide affordable construction training to workers in underserved communities and a new St. Vrain Valley Schools program to implement comprehensive career pathways in education, advanced manufacturing and information technology.

Nine smaller seed grants went to programs involving industry and education partners that will focus initially on certain school districts or geographic areas but that could grow if proven to be successful. These included a La Plata County program to provide adult learners with professional certificates driven by industry needs, a program to train formerly incarcerated adults in the Denver area for construction careers and several initiatives to attract and train rural residents for health-care jobs.

Lastly, officials awarded 32 planning grants of about $50,000 each to local partnerships seeking to craft new workforce-development programs, particularly via consortiums involving business and school-district leaders. Though many represent early-stage efforts, some are more specific, such as an initiative from Veritas Fine Homes and Pueblo Community College Southwest to design a manufacturing facility that will train high-school students and 18- to 24-year-old workers to build manufactured homes that will be sold to local public-sector industries.

More Opportunity Now grants to become available

The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade will offer two additional application periods for about $58 million in grant money that remains in the program, including one set to open later this summer. More information will be made available at in the coming weeks, according to a news release.

“Innovative partnerships between educational institutions and employers have proven that modern apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs create solid career pathways,” added OEDIT Executive Director Eve Lieberman in the release. “These Opportunity Now Colorado grant recipients will foster more of these opportunities at the regional level and contribute to a strong economy that works for everyone.”