With Colorado’s business rankings dropping, leaders discuss needed workforce improvements

Colorado Succeeds President Scott Laband and Colorado Business Roundtable President Debbie Brown speak at Tuesday's Future of Work event.

Days after CNBC dropped Colorado outside the top 10 in its annual Top States for Business rankings, state business, government and education leaders gathered to discuss the new approaches needed for workforce development in an increasingly competitive environment.

Presenters at the annual Future of Work event, sponsored by the Colorado Business Roundtable and Colorado Succeeds, did not offer a silver bullet for generating an increasing pipeline of talent within the Centennial State. But there was consensus that state leaders must boost training and upskilling options for Colorado residents, and a key official in Gov. Jared Polis’ administration asked business leaders to move away from degree-based requirements for jobs and toward skills-based hiring.

“Building a tomorrow-ready workforce requires modernizing pipelines,” COBRT President Debbie Brown told a sizable crowd assembled for the event at The Cable Center on the University of Denver campus.

Colorado still has a lot going for its workforce, including a 69% labor force participation rate, a total of 44% of its working population possessing bachelor’s degrees and a 9.3% employment in STEM fields — all totals that rank among the top five nationally. The concentration on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers has helped the state boost several key industries over the past decade, including aerospace, bioscience and cybersecurity.

Drop in rankings

But the pandemic exacerbated a years-long labor shortage, and the state regularly reports having more than two job openings for every unemployed resident, causing employers to pause expansions and to cut back on operating hours and production. And more companies have reported an inability to find available workers with specific skills, which led the Legislature this year to pass a law offering free training and credentialing for individuals entering the hardest-hit sectors, including nursing, education and construction.

The drop to No. 11 in the CNBC rankings — the first time that the state hasn’t placed in the top 10 since the news station began its rankings in 2007 — highlighted several areas in which the state either is struggling or is falling off its pre-pandemic peaks.

Colorado, for example, fell from No. 1 to No. 9 in workforce. While the CNBC rankings didn’t offer in-depth explanations of its ranking shifts, an accompanying story did state that Colorado’s worker training programs “lag.”

Eve Lieberman, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, speaks at the Future of Work event on Tuesday.

The state fell from 11th to 21st in rankings within the overall rankings that looked specifically at its education system, and it plummeted from 11th to 32nd in its overall economy, with its 2.8% unemployment rate appearing offset by GDP growth that is lower than most Western states. While Colorado’s marks for infrastructure and access to capital rose significantly, the state continued to lag in the cost of doing business, ranked 38th as rent, labor costs and property prices continue to rise.

Potential workforce solutions

A significant portion of the discussion at Tuesday’s event revolved around the need to get more homegrown students trained for in-demand, higher-paying jobs, particularly as the portion of high school graduates enrolling in post-secondary education fell 10 points to 49.9% in 2020. Eve Lieberman, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, noted that 91% of the jobs that pay wages high enough to sustain families require some degree of post-secondary education, even if not a full four-year college degree.

Several presenters — including Lieberman and Helen Young Hayes, CEO of nonprofit upskilling and training firm ActivateWork — said employers must move away from requiring bachelor’s degrees and begin hiring based on skills, which can broaden and diversify the hiring pool. But Hayes said that student-aid systems that pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Coloradans’ college degrees should be expanded to pay for more focused and short-term training classes that have a record of getting previously lower-skilled workers into higher-paying jobs.

“We put the onus of training and credentialing on the individual,” she said. “Because the burden of education in training in apprenticeships is falling on industry, there should be very modest incentives … to make apprenticeships easy and to help employers and workers get into those living-wage opportunities.”

University of Colorado Denver Chancellor Michelle Marks speaks on a Future of Work panel Tuesday while ActivateWork CEO Helen Young Hayes and Weifield Group Contracting cofounder Karla Nugent listen.

More apprenticeships sought

Apprenticeships and other experiential-learning opportunities are vital to connecting students to career pathways and need to be common practice — something that can be done with collaboration between business and education, University of Colorado Denver Chancellor Michelle Marks said. College education needs to be more flexible so that students who also are working can navigate classes alongside a job, and learning should be less focused on the classroom and more experiential to incorporate practical work, she added.

Some employers and educational institutions have begun to work in partnership toward these aims. Karla Nugent, who is cofounder and chief revenue officer of electrical contractor Weifield Group Contracting, noted her company is offering apprenticeships that count toward school credit and is working to develop career-advancement degrees with two- and four-year colleges.

But at a time when students are turning away from post-secondary education and falling short in skills they present to employers, both businesses and educational institutions need to seize the moment and find more ways to fill gaps in the talent-development pipeline, officials said.

“I really fundamentally believe we are at a unique moment in time because of the energy there is around that conversation,” Colorado Succeeds President Scott Laband added.