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Manufacturers seeking future work force

by Monica Mendoza

Michel Mouton welds during a Pikes Peak Community College class. Manufacturers are hoping there will be enough welders to fill future jobs.

Sparks fly every day in Scott Mannering’s classroom.

He’s readying a work force of welders and machinists — two career fields in demand among local and national manufacturers.

“Trust me, they are snatching up my good students,” said Mannering, Pikes Peak Community College welding and machining technology department chair.

El Paso County’s future manufacturing work force finds itself in a game of what should come first, the training or the jobs. In the 1990s, manufacturing represented 16 percent of the local economy. By 2010, the county had lost 14,300 manufacturing jobs — a 55 percent decline. Today, manufacturing represents 5 percent of the local economy.

That information is not lost on the up and coming generation looking for career paths. With fewer jobs available, there are fewer students choosing the trades.

“We have two or three generations who have been told manufacturing is not the future,” said Tom Neppl, CEO of Springs Fabrication.

But, now as the baby boomers who grew up in the trades ready to retire, the manufacturers left in El Paso County — those who employ about 127,000 people — are worried about their future work force.

A group of manufacturing CEOs and managers met this month at a Manufacturing Forum hosted by the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp., Pikes Peak Community College and the Pikes Peak Region Manufacturing Coalition.

About 65 people representing 28 manufacturing companies met for the first time since 2009 to discuss the issues that face them — from the city’s personal business tax to infrastructure needs.

Their biggest concern is finding skilled workers, they said. The average age in the Springs Fabrication weld shop is 50, Neppl said.

“Our challenge is huge if I want to grow the business,” Neppl said.

Linda Johnson, business specialist at Pikes Peak Workforce Center, said there are 37,000 unemployed people in El Paso and Teller counties. Still, the employer requests for assemblers and fabricators, machine tool setters and operators and welders are difficult to fill, she said. That mirrors national reports that 90 percent of manufacturing employers said shortage of production workers is their top work force issue.

“The problem now is finding a qualified work force,” she said. “When Springs Fab calls up and says I need a welder-II and welder-III, they are hard to come by.”

And what is to happen when or if manufacturing plants comes back? Twelve new companies relocated or expanded in El Paso County this year. Of those, five were manufacturing companies.

PPCC is ready to respond to industry needs, said college president Lance Bolton. He took copious notes during the manufacturing forum, saying the college’s job is to provide high quality education in career and technical fields.

Already the college adjusted its curriculum to teach students to use metal processing equipment such as sheers, punches and angle rolls. Industry leaders said they needed more employees trained on computer assisted design programs, and the college bought the software. This summer, the college added a new computer numerical control mill and lathe to ramp up its machining program.

Mannering is doing his best to train the needed work force, even drawing in the young tech generation with a virtual welding machine that helps students learn specific welding techniques before they ever get their hands on a torch.

“The virtual machine is a way to segue the students from their world to our world,” Mannering said.

Inside the welding classroom on PPCC’s Centennial campus, there does not appear to be a generational gap in interest for the high-paying manufacturing jobs.

More than 500 high school students from Colorado Springs and surrounding areas take courses in welding, machining, automotive and computer science through the PPCC Area Vocational Program. Some will earn an associate’s degree within one year after they graduate from high school.

Alvin Troy, 20, started working in a Palmer Lake welding shop four years ago buffing tubes. Now, he’s working on his associate’s degree in welding at PPCC and said he believes he’ll have no trouble finding a job.

“I love this field,” he said. “It’s awesome to know I can come to this environment and work with my hands.”

He plans to get certified in structural welding.

“And, that makes him extremely marketable,” Mannering said.