West Slope should be bigger player in aerospace industry

By Bonnie Petersen

One of the most important objectives of CLUB 20 is to improve the economic vitality of our Western Slope communities. We don’t operate in a vacuum though, and a critical part of that goal is forging relationships within industries that form the backbone of Colorado’s economy — regardless of where they are located.

One such industry is aerospace. Our state has all of the ingredients necessary to fuel a robust aerospace economy — a large military presence, world-class research universities and a critical mass of suppliers and customers. That’s why, in Colorado, the aerospace industry directly employs more than 60,000 people across the civil, military and private sectors, with an average wage in the six figures.

But we need to do more to ensure that people involved in that industry are aware of the human and manufacturing resources western Colorado has to offer, and people on this side of the Continental Divide need to know how they might participate in the industry.

A few weeks ago, CLUB 20 was invited to see this industry — and all of the economic opportunities it creates — first-hand, as a participant in what was called the “Front Range Aerospace Bus Tour,” organized by Sen. Michael Bennet.

The tour was designed to further advance regional cooperation and highlight key facets of our state’s aerospace industry. The group visited Ball Aerospace in Boulder, United Launch Alliance in Centennial and the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs and heard from a “who’s who” of more than a dozen aerospace firms and organizations doing business in Colorado — Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Aeroflex and Sierra Nevada, to name just a few.

As CLUB 20’s representative, I appreciated learning about how involved Colorado businesses are in all facets of the space industry, including satellite deployment, GPS development and the development of spacecraft that will be used for space travel.

We learned about rockets fueled by rubber and nitrous oxide and that there are 600 people already signed up to go into space when the technology to do so is completed. There was great value in seeing this industry up close and hearing directly from its leaders. The organic and informal conversations that emerged among the participants were priceless.

For example, many of the aerospace executives explained the critical need for a strong education pipeline to train and produce the engineers of tomorrow. For western Colorado, that means a Western Slope math major could be Boeing’s next chief engineer.

Were these executives aware that each year thousands of students on the Western Slope graduate with degrees in applied science, math and engineering? Have they talked with our universities about how they can help feed their workforce?

Our students and our schools’ leaders also need to know that this opportunity exists and what it looks like, and that’s part of the reason the bus tour was so valuable.

Not only were there aerospace executives and elected officials, but participants also included superintendents of our public school systems and chancellors of our universities. These leaders were able to tangibly see the opportunities that are available for their students if they stick with their education — especially those students in science, math and technology-related fields.

During one conversation, an executive explained his company’s supply chain, which includes manufacturing firms in four different states. Did he know that the Western Slope is brimming with manufacturing firms that may be able to produce his company’s product closer to home and, possibly, more efficiently? How can we help facilitate that?

These types of opportunities can greatly benefit our members and diversify our West Slope economies, but they don’t happen every day. They need to be cultivated in a thoughtful, intentional manner, and that’s exactly what Sen. Bennet did with the aerospace bus tour.

I’m grateful for being invited to participate. It was an eye-opening experience, and you can be sure CLUB 20 will look for opportunities to bring some of these people to western Colorado in an effort to establish strong business and education connections in an exciting and growing industry.

For 60 years, CLUB 20 — a coalition of individuals, businesses, tribes and local governments — has been “the voice of the Western Slope.”

We are dedicated to representing the interests of western Colorado communities at all levels of government — from making sure rural roads get paved to building toward ubiquitous broadband service delivery to keeping West Slope water available for West Slope needs. And we want to help this region reach for the sky by becoming more involved in the aerospace industry.

Bonnie Petersen is the executive director of CLUB 20.


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