Springs, Pueblo share manufacturing focus

Springs Fabrication machinist Jason Schlagel operates a bridge mill. Manufacturing companies are having trouble finding qualified machinists.

There is talk around town about waking the sleeping giant that once was manufacturing.

After years of silence about the decline of the El Paso County manufacturing sector, alarms appear to be sounding, starting with the Economic Development Corp.’s Local Industry Council, the Southern Colorado Business Partnership and the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce — folks are talking about manufacturing with renewed gusto.

“I wouldn’t say that the community hasn’t been interested, but we all now realize the benefits of manufacturing,” said Tom Neppl, CEO of Springs Fabrication.

Neppl joined the chamber’s board last year to highlight the need for manufacturing in this community, he said.

The local discussions are spurred by the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Collaborative, headed by industry leaders in Pueblo, who are saying it’s time to let go of territorial sentiments and think regionally. Pueblo is in line for a $1.8 million grant to jumpstart the creation of a Manufacturing Center of Excellence — a workforce training facility that could be used by manufacturers across the southern region.

In the past decade, Pueblo has built an impressive Economic and Workforce Development Division at its community college. It’s the place where manufactures send their employees for training on heavy machinery and new technology.

The division has built up such a reputation that when Denmark-based Vestas was exploring the possibility of building a wind tower manufacturing plant in Pueblo, the dean of the division was sent to Denmark to make a case for its workforce training programs.

About 500 Vestas employees have been trained — mostly in welding — at the PCC workforce division for employment at the Vestas plant, which opened last year.

Colorado Springs could take advantage of Pueblo’s assets, said John Vukich dean of the Economic and Workforce Development Division at Pueblo Community College. The goal of the division and of the collaborative is to provide services to help manufacturers remain competitive, stay in business, hire new people, expand operations and retain manufacturers in the community, he said.

“I don’t talk Pueblo, I talk sector — the manufacturing sector,” Vukich said. “As long as we keep that the focus, the mechanisms in which we are able to bring those training events or resources does not matter. It’s not what happens at the edge of Pueblo County versus El Paso County — we just have to remove those barriers.”

Dr. Fred Crowley, senior economist for the Southern Colorado Economic Forum, has been screaming about manufacturing job retention and creation in El Paso County for years now. Manufacturing jobs are important economic drivers because of the high number of indirect jobs they create. For every manufacturing job there are at least three other jobs created to support the manufacturing, he said.

In El Paso County’s manufacturing heyday of the late 1990s, manufacturing represented 16 percent of the local economy. With its higher paying jobs, manufacturing significantly increased per capita income in El Paso County, Crowley said.

By 2010 El Paso County lost 14,300 manufacturing jobs — a 55 percent decline. The loss of those jobs contributes to the region making a slower economic recovery now than the rest of the U.S., Crowley said. And since their loss, per capita income in the county has declined more than 7 percent.

“I think the single most important driving factors — we don’t have any manufacturing jobs in town anymore,” Crowley said.

In Colorado, manufacturing contributes $9 billion a year to the economy and employs 127,282 people. In El Paso County, manufacturing is about 5 percent of the economy. That’s worth saving, local manufacturers say. Some have joined efforts with the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Collaborative to hold on to their industry.

“If we want to attract manufacturers we need to look at Pueblo to see what they are doing,” said Dan Malinaric, chair of the EDC’s Local Industry Council. Malinaric, managing director and site manager of ATMEL Corp., is acutely aware of industry issues and recently toured Pueblo’s Economic and Workforce Development Division at PCC.

El Paso County manufacturers face some tough issues — aging baby boomer work force readying to retire, lack of new trained workers coming up the pipeline, declining training options in El Paso County and at Pikes Peak Community College and perception of the industry.

“In spite of the fact that we have high unemployment, there is a lack of skilled workers,” Neppel said. He struggles to find qualified welders and machinists, he said.

Vukich has heard the industry cries about lack of skilled workforce. He takes his four training labs on the road, which roll up to the doorstep of manufacturers who want to train or retrain their employees on tools such as mills and lathes. Several Colorado Springs companies have called on the mobile training trucks.

“This lab could go on site and stay there six months if it had to,” Vukich said.

The division also worked with Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel mill in Pueblo to reinstate its apprentice program, Vukich said. Its electrical mechanical technicians — mostly baby boomers in their 60s — are ready to retire. The workforce development division put together a 2,000-hour training program and today the median age of such workers out at the mill is 35.

“There is a glimmer of hope that the younger people are getting interested in manufacturing,” Vukich said.

On a recent trip to Pueblo, Randy Scott, president of the Southern Colorado Business Partnership, toured the workforce development division and the mobile trucks and learned about other workforce training programs that Colorado Springs manufacturers could use. He is compiling his research on shared program opportunities, which he expects to release in the next six months.

“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Scott said. “We want to come along side — there are some tremendous assets in Southern Colorado that most people are unaware of.”

It’s a matter of letting Colorado Springs manufacturers know about the regional training possibilities, said Jennifer Taylor, EDC associate vice present of local industry.

“It’s a really positive sign that there is movement regarding this effort to help manufacturers,” Taylor said. “We want to support the collaborative effort in any way we can in the Pikes Peak Region.”

There is a lot to talk about — legislation and regulations, energy costs, education and skill shortage, said Barry Baum, member of the EDC’s Local Industry Council. Waking the giant will require efforts from local high schools, community colleges, the EDC and manufacturers. Colorado Springs is nowhere near ringing that bell. But, it’s time to start talking about manufacturing again, Baum said.

“Otherwise, manufacturing will continue to die,” Baum said.