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Colorado wants residents connected to high-paying jobs. It will need more than one-time funding.

Matt Stensland for Chalkbeat

Through a one-time infusion of federal money, Colorado leaders hope they can supercharge efforts to get residents the education needed to qualify for good-paying jobs.

State planners hope the federal pandemic relief money can help retrain residents who lost their jobs during the pandemic and put high-wage jobs within reach of a diverse cross section of Coloradans.

The state has about $100 million to bolster career training in K-12 and higher education. Many believe just-released recommendations from a state task force have the power to improve the foundation of this work. Sustaining those changes, however, will require lawmakers to commit to funding Colorado workforce programs in the long term.

“A couple of years of just about any program, whether it’s education or otherwise, is not going to transform what we need to be transformed,” said Patrick Meyers, the state’s chief economic recovery officer and executive director. “I’m hoping that money is the start — that it puts in plumbing that will continue to have an effect on the state.”

Last year, Colorado received $3.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — federal funds sent to help states respond to challenges brought on by the pandemic. Lawmakers identified workforce development as a priority and passed House Bill 1330 last year to create a commission to recommend how best to achieve training goals.

Among the challenges in building an educated workforce, Colorado has many residents who are low income and have trouble getting to college and finding high-paying jobs. The state has a wide racial disparity in education.

Just a quarter of Colorado’s Hispanic population has a college degree or credential. Large gaps also exist for Black and Native American communities compared with white residents. 

Per capita, Colorado spends among the lowest among states on its colleges and universities, which thus must charge relatively high tuition.

To better connect residents to jobs, the commission has issued six recommendations:

  • Offer grants to build college, employer, and community partnerships.
  • Build systems to track the long-term educational and economic success of students.
  • Redefine student success to include employment opportunities.
  • Pass laws to help students find high-need, well-paying jobs.
  • Develop a multi-year job-training plan to close the gaps among residents of color, communities, and economic class in earning degrees.
  • Identify long-term sustainable funding for post-high school education.

The commission seeks to make Colorado one of the best states by 2030 at getting college graduates jobs. To do that, the state legislature will have to decide on how to spend the federal funds.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said she’s excited about what the federal money will be able to do in increasing opportunities for state residents. McCluskie was one of the sponsors of the bill to create the commission, and it’s likely she will bring legislation based on the recommendations.

Colorado has built out a system that connects K-12 students to job training at an early age. But the state has placed less emphasis on adult training. It uses limited grant programs to attract older students to college for the first time or for retraining.

Landon Pirius, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Colorado College System, said the report would build off the success the state has in using grants for communities and colleges to build job training efforts. The money has the potential to help rural communities as well as those in urban and suburban areas. It will also help students go back and forth between college and a job to meet the demands of their career field, he said.

The recommendation to revamp how the state tracks students will yield big benefits, Pirius said. The state tracks K-12 and college student outcomes, but has never followed students from an early age to career in a cohesive way, he said. A new system could help Colorado catch up to other states.

Colorado Community College System Chancellor Joe Garcia said all of the recommendations were needed, but the state can’t make long-term changes without sustainable funding.

“We really need ongoing operating dollars,” Garcia said.

Advocates across the state said the recommendations would help right long-standing issues.

Colorado Succeeds Vice President Kelly Caufield said the recommendations help bring employers to the table with college leaders and lawmakers to improve training for students. The business and education coalition advocates for education improvements.

Kyra DeGruy Kennedy, Young Invincibles Rocky Mountain director, said she sees the potential for the state to address the needs of communities that haven’t been able to get a college education. 

“I don’t think at the end of this funding period, we’ll be able to brush our hands off and say, ‘OK, now we’re done and we’ve fixed the problem,’” she said. ”But I do think we can make major steps and spend an incredible amount of money on the right things in a way that we’ve never been able to do before.”

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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