As Colorado hurts for more early childhood educators, nurses, firefighters and workers across other industries, state legislators are attempting to fill critical workforce gaps with a pair of bills that would provide free training to an estimated 20,000 students and support about 15,000 graduating high school students each with $1,500 scholarships.
One of the measures would cover education costs — including tuition, fees, books and supplies — for students wanting to teach elementary schoolers, preschoolers or infants and toddlers as well as students interested in nursing, construction, firefighting, law enforcement and forest management. A second bill would provide scholarships to students heading to community colleges, trades schools or universities to prepare for jobs in health care, manufacturing, construction, finance, engineering, IT, education and behavioral and mental health.
Both bills, expected to be introduced later this week, have bipartisan support as they aim to ease the heavy costs students often shoulder while learning skills they need to join the workforce. Funding for each bill would stretch for two years and come from the state’s general fund.
“With this significant infusion of resources, it really is a jump-start to try and get more of our traditional and nontraditional age students into these industries that are so desperate for workers,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, said ahead of a Tuesday morning news conference announcing the pieces of legislation.
McCluskie is a prime sponsor on the bill that would fund training for students.
That bill proposes spending $45 million on students’ education costs from the state’s general fund, including $38.6 million to support students earning a certificate or associate degree at a public community college, local district college or area technical college.
A separate $5 million would be directed to short-term nursing programs at community colleges with the goal of preparing more nurses to staff local hospitals. And $1.4 million would be funneled to a competitive grant program facilitated by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and available to registered apprenticeship programs in building and construction trades.
The free education initiative builds on the Care Forward Colorado Program, which Gov. Jared Polis introduced in August as a way to help the state overcome a crippling shortage of health care workers. That program, funded by $26 million of federal COVID stimulus funding over two years, is offering free schooling for students pursuing careers as certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomy technicians, medical assistants or dental assistants.
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More than 1,400 students in training through the program have graduated from the Colorado Community College System, local district colleges and area technical colleges since last fall, according to information Gov. Jared Polis cited during the news conference. Along with lawmakers, he hopes to replicate the success of the program in other industries that have been plagued by staff shortages throughout the pandemic.
“We want to make sure that more Coloradans can access good jobs,” Polis said. “It’s good for individuals to earn a living. It saves them money, and it’s good for our economy and necessary for our continued growth and success.”
Lawmakers also hope that by funding college courses and training programs, students can narrow their focus to their studies.
“We want students to be thinking about their coursework or their next test, now how they are going to pay for next semester’s textbooks,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora. “If we can reduce some of the stress for students, we should.”
The other piece of legislation that would award scholarships to graduating high schoolers could benefit more than one-fourth of the graduating class of 2024, according to lawmakers.
The bill would help students in eligible disciplines cover expenses for books, fees and tuition and would expedite their path through higher education and training, said Rep. Matt Martinez, D-Monte Vista, who is sponsoring the bill.
“This is the type of meaningful legislation that is really going to put dollars in the hands of our students and (make) sure that they have the skills necessary to be successful,” said Martinez, who previously worked for nine-and-a-half years at Adams State University.
The legislation would also give Colorado a better footing to make strides in building up its own workforce rather than having to hire employees from other states or outsource work to other states, said bill sponsor Rep. Don Wilson, R-Monument.
“We need to have paths that pair young adults with industries that need them and connect them in moving forward,” said Wilson, who works with students in aeronautics and aerospace and sees firsthand how much students need financial assistance to progress in their education.
All graduating high school seniors will be eligible to apply for a scholarship, with priority given to applicants focused on preparing for jobs in industries grappling with severe workforce shortages.
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State leaders relied on employment statistics from CDLE and the 2022 Talent Pipeline Report to understand the industries struggling to attract and retain workers.
“This is a very data-driven response for workforce shortages that we have today,” Polis said, noting that the state would evaluate how well the programs worked after two years and analyze the workforce needs at that time.
But higher education and training expenses are only one part of the affordability challenges many students and prospective workers face across Colorado as housing and child care costs have outpaced salaries in many communities.
When pressed on the chronic struggles employees currently have with making ends meet while working in high-demand fields like education, construction and firefighting, Polis said, “these are all professions that pay better than the unskilled workforce.”
He hinted at future legislation to address the state’s lack of housing affordability, saying “stay tuned.”
Polis added that the legislative package unveiled on Tuesday zeroes in on workforce readiness and said that reducing cost burdens associated with education and training helps students’ overall finances.
“In any way you look at the compensation side, it absolutely helps to save people the costs of their preparation,” Polis said, noting “it means entering the workforce with less debt or no debt” and “perhaps being able to work while you get your degree and being able to save up a little bit because you don’t have to pay for the cost of achieving a certificate or degree.”
This story was updated at 4:27 p.m. on March 14, 2023, to correct details about who benefitted from the Care Forward Colorado Program. More than 1,400 students in training through the program have graduated from the Colorado Community College System, local district colleges and area technical colleges since last fall.