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Codi Fonk gestures toward an area that needs resurfacing on a bail-and-wind machine used for hemp harvesting. Fonk was able to obtain an apprenticeship with Formation Ag in Monte Vista after his dream of taking mechanical engineering classes at Adams State University didn't materialize. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Codi Fonk loves watching the machines he helps design come to life. 

Fonk, 23, is an apprentice engineer at Formation Ag in the San Luis Valley, where he designs and tests components for massive equipment used in hemp farming. 

“It’s a dream job,” Fonk said. “I love what I do.”

He considers himself lucky: He doesn’t have an engineering degree, and he worked his way up from an assembly technician. He wanted to go to college for mechanical engineering after graduating from Del Norte High School in 2016, but discovered there was no engineering program at Adams State University in Alamosa, the hub of higher education in the San Luis Valley.

“I didn’t want to go to school outside the valley and be in debt all my life,” Fonk said. “I thought maybe I should just get a welding certificate and call it good. It felt really limiting.”

Instead, Fonk plans to graduate from Adams State next year with a degree in math, and the knowledge that he’s lucky to have landed a decent job without moving away. 

Codi Fonk watches as a plasma cutter slices through a piece of steel at Formation Ag, an agricultural equipment manufacturer in Monte Vista. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But thanks to a new partnership between Adams State and Colorado State University, beginning in fall 2022 science-minded young people will be able to earn a CSU mechanical engineering degree without leaving Alamosa. 

Under a joint bachelor’s degree program, students will take the normal curriculum at Adams State for their first two years and then study for two more years with CSU engineering faculty at the Alamosa campus.

Fonk’s boss Randy Wright, Formation Ag’s general manager and an Adams State trustee, said he hopes the program will provide a pipeline of skilled workers in a region that struggles to draw high-paying jobs. 

“How many times do we have to watch our kids, our best talent, leave the valley to find a job?” Wright said. “Meanwhile, a company like ours, often we have to bring engineers in from outside the valley to work here. It’s a bit of a paradox.”

The lack of both high-paying jobs and skilled workers in the San Luis Valley is “a classic chicken-and-egg problem,” said Matt Nehring, an Adams State physics professor and interim chair of the college’s STEM school who helped spearhead the CSU partnership.

“There’s not a lot of industry here outside of agriculture,” Nehring said. “There’s no workers because we don’t have the educational programs, and there’s no industry because we don’t have the workers. Which will come first? We’re doing the part we can manage.”

Engineering degrees open doors in any number of fields, Nehring said. 

“Anything that has any sort of moving part that needs to be designed, it was probably designed by a mechanical engineer,” he said. “You can contribute to a lot of different fields: heavy equipment, aerospace, robotics and agriculture are all looking for skilled workers.”

Dr. Matt Nehring outside his office at Adams State University in Alamosa. Nehring hopes the mechanical engineering program he helped develop in partnership with Colorado State University will be a boon to locals. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nehring called it a chance to level the playing field for people who can’t afford to leave home for college.

“It’s a fantastic career path,” he said. “But we’re home to some of the poorest counties in the state. People here are part of tight-knit families and down-to-earth. They’re hard workers, but they haven’t been given the same opportunities. You can’t work for Lockheed or Ball Aerospace without a degree, but they often can’t go get one because it’s too expensive to live on the Front Range.”

Partnering with CSU made the program financially feasible, Nehring said. The costs will be split between the schools. Much of Adams’ portion will be supported by a five-year, $4.8 million grant from the Department of Education meant to support STEM programs at schools with large Hispanic populations — 37% of undergraduate students at Adams State identify as Hispanic, qualifying it as a Hispanic serving institution.

Colorado’s congressional delegation has sought backing for the program, with U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse requesting an additional $1 million in federal funding for the program in the 2022 appropriations bill making its way through Congress.

Campus officials will repurpose five classrooms into labs, equipped with heavy-duty machinery like lathes and milling machines, Nehring said. 

CSU said the program will be staffed by eight people, including four professors and several lab workers and advisers.

Similar partnerships operate elsewhere in the state. The University of Colorado offers three degree programs at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction: electrical, civil and mechanical engineering. The mechanical engineering program has grown from nine graduates in 2011 to roughly two dozen graduates a year in the last several years, according to university data. 

Western State University in Gunnison has since 2018 offered a University of Colorado mechanical engineering program. In October, it cut the ribbon on a new engineering building.

Adams partnered with CSU — the state’s land grant university — because of their shared ties to agriculture, Nehring said, including county extension services and other smaller-scale collaborations in the Adams State agribusiness program.

Dr. Matt Nehring adjusts a drill press in Adams State University’s machine shop in Alamosa. Nehring helped develop a new mechanical engineering program for the San Luis Valley college in partnership with Colorado State University. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CSU has the know-how to develop a high-quality mechanical engineering program, said Christian Puttlitz, who heads CSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in Fort Collins and helped develop the program at Adams State.

“We have a longstanding reputation in engineering,” Puttlitz said. “A student with a CSU degree in engineering will receive recognition for the value of that degree. It would take Adams a long time to develop that.”

Puttlitz also sees the program as a chance to help diversify the field of engineering. 

“Mechanical engineering as a field is behind the curve on gender equity and ethnic diversity,” he said. “With Adams being a Hispanic-serving institution, this is a step toward leveling that.”

Mechanical engineering graduates are in high demand, Puttlitz said. “We can’t pump out enough graduates for the aerospace industry.”

But Puttlitz also hopes that graduates might not have to move far from home to find jobs. 

“This could be an economic engine for the San Luis Valley,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that Hewlett-Packard, Intel and AMD all have big facilities in Fort Collins. We provide a huge workforce. The cost of living in Alamosa is a lot less than the northern Front Range, and it wouldn’t surprise me if high-tech companies end up locating there.”

The lack of high-paying jobs weighs on the San Luis Valley. The median household income in Alamosa County was $38,213 in 2019, less than half the statewide average of $77,104. In Costilla County, at the southeastern end of the valley, the child poverty rate was 38% in 2019, compared to a statewide average of 11%. 

Wright, the Formation Ag manager, who also previously worked in economic development for Alamosa County, said he’s seen companies express interest in the San Luis Valley, only to back out when confronted with the difficulty of hiring workers. 

Randy Wright, a manager at Formation Ag and an Adams State University, said he’s seen companies express interest in the San Luis Valley, only to back out in the face of shortages of skilled workers. (Photo courtesy Adams State University)

Locals had high hopes after the Federal Aviation Administration approved the San Luis Valley as a test site for unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015, Wright said, with several companies expressing interest in testing drone platforms in the broad, sparsely populated valley. 

But plans sputtered as companies ran into staffing problems, he said. 

“We needed technical training programs,” Wright said. “There were some great locations for them to locate in the valley, but we just didn’t have the workforce. We started to investigate getting an engineering degree at Adams back then, but it just didn’t work out.”

University officials see the program as a way to help slow a long decline in undergraduate enrollment, said Nehring, the Adams State professor.

Adams State had 1,740 undergraduates at the start of the fall semester, down from nearly 2,500 in fall 2011 — a drop of 30%, university figures show. Overall university enrollment has fallen slightly over the last decade, to 3,040 this fall from more than 3,300 in 2011, though the numbers are buoyed by a slowly increasing number of graduate students — many of whom attend class remotely.

The decline in undergraduate students reflects a broader trend of falling undergrad enrollment at regional colleges nationwide over the same period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The mechanical engineering program alone won’t make up for the decline at Adams State — at full enrollment, it would likely see about 60 students per incoming class — but Nehring says it could help. 

“A lot of folks are worried about undergraduate enrollment, but you can’t just cut in response to decline,” he said. “You’ve got to have the initiative to turn it around.”

Even in the face of dropping enrollment, Adams State remains a cornerstone of education in the San Luis Valley. Roughly 40% of students are from the valley, and Nehring said the university excels at meeting their needs. 

“Lots of our students come from rural backgrounds, and they often do better here than in urban areas where the pace of life isn’t what they’re used to,” he said. “Students can receive and provide better family support here. This isn’t the place for everyone, but we’ve got smaller class sizes, and it works well for locals.”

Fonk, the young apprentice engineer, said he has loved his time at Adams State.

“The professors at Adams really want to get to know you,” he said. “The student-to-teacher ratio is great. I think I’d feel a little lost at some giant university.”

Fonk said he feels lucky to have launched an engineering career without a degree, and said someday he’d like to go into business for himself in the San Luis Valley. His fiancee’s younger brother has been studying diesel mechanics but is getting interested in the engineering program, Fonk said. 

“Maybe if he gets that degree,” Fonk said, “we can open that fabrication shop we’ve always talked about.” 

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. Twitter: @davidgilbert4u