Manufacturing Partnership looks promising from the start

These days, almost any news about the local business and jobs environment tends to skew toward the dark side, focusing on what we need instead of what we have.

We need more companies with primary jobs. We need more venture capital. We need more programs to develop the workforce. We need more unity among local companies. And on and on.

So when another group wants to talk about organizing, the typical response is to shrug and proceed with low expectations.

Admittedly, that was the case last week before a reception at Ivywild School marking the start of a new entity called the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Partnership.

Seemed like a nice idea. But could it really make a difference?

The reality, crammed into a Bristol Brewery meeting room, was a huge, positive surprise. Despite a sign limiting the room’s occupancy to 27 people, more like 75 stood willingly and socialized for a while, then spent another hour listening to (and engaging in) a panel discussion about their shared concerns.

By the end, anyone in the room couldn’t help but feel energized about the future of manufacturing — and workforce development — in Colorado Springs.

Leading the way, conveniently, is Tom Neppl, president and CEO of Springs Fabrication as well as chairman of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance’s board of directors.

As constantly on the go as Neppl is in those business and volunteer pursuits, he’s equally pumped at the prospects for this partnership, saying it’s much better and more effective if  “15 of us are saying the same thing.”

The group’s mission is robust:

“Combining the resources of the region, assisting our stakeholders in growing their markets, achieving their respective goals and sharing our best practices to grow our manufacturing sector to world-class status. The expanded mission will provide all participating communities with economic stability and career opportunities for their local workforce. We will embrace innovation and connect with other key sectors in our region. We will brand manufacturing on our region and market our collective capabilities and assets.”

The group also lists its strategic objectives as “supply chain development, workforce support and manufacturing awareness.” And to measure its progress, the partnership will be monitoring “unemployment rate, number of people employed in manufacturing” and “individual growth of companies.”

As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that no priority is higher than developing the workforce. Neppl and other executives talked about their growing need for skilled workers who would earn excellent wages — if only those workers were available.

Instead of everyone wringing their hands in frustration, they’re trying to do something about it.

If you added up everyone in that gathering at Ivywild, they could quickly add hundreds if not thousands of high-paying jobs to strengthen their own businesses and the local economy. But they can’t, because the pool of potential manufacturing workers is so lacking.

But instead of everyone wringing their hands in frustration, they’re trying to do something about it. They’re working with schools such as Pikes Peak Community College on specific classes that would produce qualified people who could move directly into waiting jobs.

The conversation was so hopeful, so positive, it made me think that these business leaders simply need to find the right audiences. Perhaps they should visit every high school, large and small, offering an alternative to those students who aren’t so sure anymore about going through four years of college, incurring considerable debt and finishing with no guarantee of a job thereafter.

For many, it might make more sense to jump straight into a manufacturing-focused program, with the promise of internships soon and eventually permanent jobs that would pay more than many four-year college graduates earn.

More good news: These manufacturing executives aren’t alone. They have help from others such as Jo O’Brien of the Colorado Community College System, one of the speakers at the Ivywild event.

“The time for talking is over,” O’Brien said forcefully to the group. Her theme, which she has written and talked about extensively, is that she could identify 15,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in Colorado last year. State “career pathway” legislation has created a mechanism to improve what’s now being called the “advanced manufacturing workforce,” and O’Brien told the executives that the door is open for them to benefit.

This might mean some new terminology to replace certain phrases with less-than-positive connotations, such as vocational training, trade schools, production workers, assembly lines, etc. When young people find out those “advanced manufacturing jobs” can earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, and more, they might respond.

That’s why you should be hearing more about the Southern Colorado Manufacturing Partnership in weeks and months to come.

It could lead to some of the best economic development success we’ve had in recent years. nCSBJ