Polis boosts workforce-development plans before start of 2024 session

The west side of the Colorado Capitol, as seen in May 2023

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday added more definition to his workforce-development push for the coming legislative session, proposing new tax credits for the quantum industry and bolstering his request to fund intermediaries that can connect employers to apprenticeships.

The Democratic governor in November proposed some $60 million in funding go in the next fiscal year to help train workers with the skills that employers need and to create more talent pipelines across high-need industries. The requests came as employers identified talent shortages as one of their two biggest concerns in a Colorado Chamber of Commerce survey and as the newly formed Education to Employment Alliance released a report calling for several improvements in the state’s talent-development system.

Polis’ original budget request sought to make $30 million in refundable tax credits available to employers of all sizes to create new apprenticeship programs in which students can earn money while they learn a profession and can help to plot out their careers. The tax credits are meant to help defray the costs of apprenticeships to workers by providing an as-of-yet-undecided flat amount per apprentice.

Meanwhile, in a supplemental budget request submitted late Tuesday afternoon, Polis asked for another $2.5 million to be set aside to grow the ecosystem of qualified intermediaries, which are groups that can link students and employers together on apprenticeships. Such intermediaries can include economic-development organizations, industry or trade associations, nonprofit groups such as chambers of commerce and entities that represent a group of business partners, according to the Apprenticeship Colorado website.

“Quality jobs”

“By growing the number of registered apprenticeship programs in the state, we will create more pathways into quality jobs, allow people to learn while they earn and incentivize industry to be partners in talent development,” Polis wrote in a letter addressed to legislators.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference in March about two workforce-development bills he supported during the 2023 legislative session.

The governor also continues to ask legislators, in advance of the Jan. 10 start to the 2024 session, to set aside $20 million in tax credits for employer-led public-private partnerships that develop skills-training programs specifically in the construction and manufacturing sectors. That’s in addition to seeking $4.3 million more in Opportunity Now grants for coalitions of employers, schools and training programs creating career pathways — a $1 million decrease from the $5.3 million he sought in November but still a boost to the $85 million program.

That batch of money is aimed at creating enough workforce in the state to take advantage of three ongoing and deep-pocketed federal grant programs, said Eve Lieberman, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Those are the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aimed at building out areas like highways and broadband, the Inflation Reduction Act heavy on green-energy funding and the CHIPS and Science Act meant to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing.

Workforce development needed for grants

During last month’s rollout of the annual Colorado Talent Pipeline Report, Lee Wheeler-Berliner, managing director of the Colorado Workforce Development Council, explained the urgency of investing in high-impact opportunities. He noted that the state needs 6,000 more construction laborers just for the IIJA projects for which it hopes to receive grants, and 50,000 more members of the profession by 2030.

“Colorado companies choose to expand or relocate largely because of the talent we have here,” Lieberman told The Sum & Substance in an interview, explaining why OEDIT is pushing so hard to increase partnerships that train more workers locally. “It’s also the number-one challenge for employers that we hear they face. The talent needs that they have aren’t being met.”

Eve Lieberman is executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Finally, Polis wrote to legislators that he hopes to offer a federally aligned quantum tax credit that could be used by companies in the high-speed computing sector to make capital investments and could serve as loan guarantees. Though he didn’t specify yet how much money he intends to put to the program, the request comes less than three months after the federal government designated Colorado as a Regional Technology and Innovation Hub for quantum, opening up the possibility of significant grants and investment.

The quantum realm

Lieberman noted that the quantum push is tied into the overall push for the state to boost workforce training because 50% of jobs in the sector are estimated to not require a four-year degree. Polis, along with a host of business groups, have pushed the idea that education and training programs need to offer more certificate programs that allow students and career changers to enter quality career fields with less than a bachelor’s degree and work their way up, which in turn creates greater economic mobility.

One of the reasons he is seeking to grow the Opportunity Now program has to do with the “significant” increase in applications the state has received for the second phase of the grant program, Lieberman noted. But he also considers it a means to boost the earnings of native Coloradans — roughly half of whom do not seek any degree beyond a high-school diploma and improve the state’s workforce as immigration to Colorado from other states is slowing.

“It’s the governor’s understanding that we can’t leave talent behind,” Lieberman said. “So, we have to focus on our homegrown talent.”