Sen. Mark Udall examined small bearings, looked into a welding simulator and watched a 3D printer make a small intricate part in the technical classrooms during a visit this week at Pikes Peak Community College.
Udall was there to speak to students, instructors and PPCC president Lance Bolton. In his week off from Senate activities in Washington, D.C., Udall toured dozens of Colorado businesses and colleges, including the U.S. Air Force Academy’s bio-fuels research program, to talk jobs and workforce development.
At PPCC, Udall learned that the college has spent the past couple of years reacting to the needs of local manufacturers who say it is difficult to find skilled welders, machinists and electricians. They worry that as the Baby Boomers — who grew up in the trades — retire, there will not be enough skilled employees to take their place.
PPCC has adjusted its curriculum to teach students to use metal processing equipment such as sheers, punches and angle rolls to meet local industry needs. Last summer, the college added a new computer numerical control mill and lathe to ramp up its machining program, which increased from two students three years ago to 94 this semester, said Taffy Mulliken, PPCC dean of communication, humanities and technical studies.
“What I heard today is how tied to the community Pikes Peak is and how the community is reaching out and supporting Pikes Peak to build a workforce,” Udall said.
Bolton used Udall’s visit to hammer home some funding issues. While PPCC is mostly state-funded, it does receive federal dollars for workforce development. The problem, Bolton said, is that that the funds are highly regulated even though there is a local Workforce Investment Board.
“We can’t say how that money is spent,” Bolton said.
Bolton has been relentless on the issue, trying to convince Congress that the local workforce boards ought to have a say in how the dollars are spent.
Bolton said that when local businesses present a workforce issue specific to Colorado Springs, the Workforce Investment Board should be able to come up with a solution specific to the Springs.
“Why can’t we determine the kind of training we need,” Bolton said.
Udall said he would work on the issue.
“My takeaway today is I am going to go back and look at how we can create more flexibility for institutions like Pikes Peak Community College, and Dr. Bolton and the private sector, which needs trained workforce,” Udall said.
Udall talked with students about veterans benefits, the Waldo Canyon fire and defense, including Fort Carson’s new helicopter combat aviation brigade.
The senator told students he was committed to investing in education and research and development. He brought up that as part of the recent tax deal to avert the “fiscal cliff,” Congress extended the wind tax credit, which he said affects PPCC students who could end up with jobs as welders, machinists and electricians in wind energy companies, such as Vestas Wind Systems in Pueblo.
“It was an important victory for Colorado,” Udall said.
Part of making the workforce stronger includes helping students pay for college, said Steve Collier, University of Colorado Colorado Springs student government president who attended the PPCC town hall.
Collier fears that federal Pell grants, awarded to low-income undergraduate students, are still at risk of being slashed as Congress tries to address the federal $16 trillion debt. About 60 percent of PPCC students have Pell grants.
Collier wanted assurances that Pell grants would not be touched.
“I don’t want students to wake up one day and get an email that says, your Pell grant was denied,” he said.
Udall said he draws a line on cuts to education, especially the Pell grant program. He predicts federal programs that provide student financial assistance will get through debt talks unscathed.
“I will fight to maintain the Pell grant program. I will fight to maintain the Stafford loan program,” he said.
Last summer, Congress turned down a proposal to double interest rates on student loans and instead extended low 3.4 percent interest rates on federally subsidized student loans for one year.
Udall said Congress needs to go further. Low-interest student loans should be paid back on an schedule that matches the student’s chosen profession, he said.
Now, college graduates are given a payback plan, regardless of whether they are teaching or working as an electrician, Udall said.
“You are required to pay that loan back based on a formula that applies to everybody,” he said. “What we want to do is apply that formula based on the amount of income.”