Opportunity Youth Key to Filling Colorado's Workforce Needs

November 18, 2015

Takeaways

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is connecting youth talent with opportunity.

Photo credit: COD newsroom. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 General license.

Colorado is home to one of our nation’s most educated workforces. That workforce been a competitive advantage that is key to our economic development strategy. Companies simply love our workforce – our employees are healthy, smart, and educated.  

But for too long, Colorado has relied on attracting talent to fill our workforce needs. Believe it or not, although we’re one of the most highly educated states, only 18 percent of Colorado’s on-time high school graduates will go straight to college, graduate, and immediately enter our workforce.

By 2020 (That's just five years away!), 74 percent of our jobs in Colorado will need a worker with some post-secondary credentials (certificates, skilled trades, vocational education, two-year or four-year degrees). When you consider that today roughly 46 percent of Coloradans have a two-year degree or higher, it’s easy to see why we’re urgent in our work to educate our kids in Colorado and prepare them to enter the workforce.

A workforce gap of this magnitude means that we can’t rely on importing talent, we need to start early, we have to capture more potential skilled workers in our own community all along the education pipeline, we have to think outside of the box and we have to partner.

For us, strategies for growing our own workforce range from supporting career technical education in our middle and high schools to promoting third grade reading. A workforce gap of this magnitude means that we can’t rely on importing talent, we need to start early, we have to capture more potential skilled workers in our own community all along the education pipeline, we have to think outside of the box and we have to partner.

In the process of looking for solutions, we identified an opportunity to engage thousands of Coloradans in workforce development. It’s called the Denver Opportunity Youth Investment Initiative, a collective impact initiative dedicated to improving educational and employment outcomes for who we call “opportunity youth,” young adults between the ages of 16-24 who are disconnected from school and/or work. Often times low-income and socially or geographically disconnected from opportunity, there are nearly 10,000 opportunity youths in Denver alone. They represent a huge opportunity to fill our workforce pipeline by getting them trained and certified in skilled jobs.

Here at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, we’re hiring an employee through the Opportunity Youth initiative dedicated to one thing: connecting talent with opportunity. We think of them as our own talent conductor. This role will provide a critical link between our opportunity youth and training opportunities, support services, and the business community. Through this initiative, opportunity youth will have direct access to connectors like this who can link them to education and Denver metro employers who need skilled labor. Since many of these young people lack actual workforce experience, it will be our job to engage our members in structuring career preparation and pre-employment training experiences.

But we’re not doing this alone. Our work with the Denver Opportunity Youth Investment Initiative is supported by 20 community organizations and generous funding from the Rose Community Foundation, Aspen Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

We have no doubt that this program will bring great energy, enthusiasm and diversity to Denver’s workforce with the potential of building a viable youth talent pipeline in many key industries that are facing worker shortages. Engaging these youth that are economically, socially, and geographically marginalized can be difficult, but providing a pathway to postsecondary success or a job that provides them with a career ladder and a livable wage is possible and absolutely worth the effort.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Holli Riebel is chief operating officer at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.