Building the workforce of tomorrow

In 1887, Colorado became one of the first states to pass a law officially creating Labor Day. The holiday was established to recognize the contributions of workers and the critical role they play in our economic growth. In 1894, Congress proclaimed the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a time to honor the working men and women whose courage, ambition and values made America work.

The state’s economic and employment landscape has changed dramatically in the years since that first celebration. Our workforce has become larger and more diverse, and the average worker will have 10 to 15 different employers throughout their lives and change careers 5 to 7 times.

Colorado has shifted from a pioneer state in the Wild West to a hub for innovation and an economic frontrunner. Our state is now the second most highly educated state in the country, ranks No. 5 for fostering innovation, and with an unemployment rate of 2.4 percent our economy was ranked No. 1 nationally by U.S. News & World Report.

The changes have come faster than our education, training, and collegiate systems can keep up with. As a result, businesses are struggling to find employees with the necessary skill sets, and countless jobs are going unfilled. The skills shortage is a clear challenge for Colorado businesses and threatens to compromise our competitive edge.

Throughout our history, when faced with new demands and challenges, the nation rallied its resources. The crown jewel of our resources has always been the American worker, and nurturing that resource is the best way to make us stronger. This Labor Day, as we honor the workers who brought us this far, we also recognize that the best way to honor the workforce of yesterday is to prepare a new generation of workers.

Colorado now has a unique opportunity to lead in the development of apprenticeship programs and work-based learning models so that employers in our state have the skilled workforce they need.

We know that real world experience is one of the most effective ways to transition youth and adults into the working world. Work-based learning programs combine skills training with related employment in real life settings. That’s why apprenticeships and similar opportunities are a foundational piece of creating and maintaining a talent pipeline for Colorado.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Gov. Hickenlooper, and other state agencies are now partnering with organizations like CareerWise to move the work-based learning model forward. CareerWise is a nonprofit organization that connects high school students with on-the-job training opportunities, opening doors for careers in industries from healthcare to advanced manufacturing. The program is laying the groundwork for a statewide system of youth apprenticeships and it’s estimated that about 20,000 students will be apprenticed by 2027.

Workforce centers across the state are also engaging job seekers with work-based learning opportunities. Over the course of a year, the Career Center in one of Colorado’s more rural counties placed 265 local job seekers into a work-based learning activity, and 85 percent of those job seekers were permanently hired with that employer.

Colorado was also the first state in the country to utilize Skillful, in partnership with the Markle Foundation. Skillful’s mission is to expand skills training and job opportunities for Coloradans without college degrees and the initiative has already assisted thousands of Coloradans in getting new skills for new jobs.

These innovative job training initiatives will play a crucial role in ensuring we have the workforce we need to continue growing our economy. Today, more than a century after the holiday was first observed in Colorado, its importance can get lost amid all the cookouts, but I hope Labor Day 2017 will be a time to recognize how far we’ve come thanks to the workforce of America’s past and present.

This Labor Day, let us celebrate the fact that America’s working men and women still have the drive and the greatness to succeed and commit ourselves to ensuring that our workforce is prepared for the journey into the workplace of tomorrow.

Ellen Golombek is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.


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