Colorado mountains. Credit: National Park Service

The aerospace industry is clamoring for educated U.S. professionals who have the skills to build and manufacture their state-of-the-art designs for everything from satellites and rockets to robots and renewable energy platforms.

Colorado has the second-largest private industry aerospace economy in the nation and is home to 150 aerospace companies. The need for trained professionals will continue to grow.

Yet the Centennial State is experiencing what educators and public policy professionals call the “Colorado Paradox” — the phenomenon of having one of the best-educated populations in the nation but consistently underperforming in educating students for high-paying jobs within the state’s aerospace industry. Thus, many of Colorado’s aerospace jobs are filled by workers imported from other states and countries.

In response to this “paradox,” Metropolitan State University of Denver partnered with industry leaders from Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corp. and other advanced manufacturing companies to design an aerospace and engineering science curriculum that will meet the workforce needs of industry.

Collaborating with Industry

Colorado’s economy is one of the strongest in the nation with an unemployment rate significantly below the national average. The state’s large aviation and aerospace sector is a contributing factor. But collaborating with Colorado industry leaders is critical if Colorado university graduates are going to be competitive in filling the workforce demands of its aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries.

Lockheed Martin and other industry leaders provided sage advice on what they want and what they are not seeing in Colorado graduates. They want future employees who not only know the technical aspects of the job but who also have soft skills — communication, leadership and the ability to work collaboratively with team members day to day.

“Our engineers are often working on first-of-their-kind technologies, where there’s no blueprint or playbook for the design,” stated John Heyliger, director of talent acquisition and workforce strategy for Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “To be successful in that kind of environment, you have to couple exceptional engineering talent with strong teamwork and communication skills. Our goal in working with universities like MSU Denver is to help students cultivate both aspects of their skillset so they can excel in a real-world aerospace career.”

After our faculty learned from industry what hard and soft skills were needed, they created a new curriculum to meet that demand, launching an innovative Aerospace and Engineering Sciences initiative.

This initiative fosters truly integrated connections among five programs: aviation and aerospace science; industrial design; mechanical, civil and electrical engineering technologies; computer information systems; and computer science. Our approach is hailed as a model for other states experiencing similar challenges.

Economic Powerhouse in State

Advanced manufacturing represents $17 billion in goods and products for Colorado with 5,800 companies employing 151,300 Coloradans. The average annual wage for Colorado employees working in the manufacturing industry is $73,700.

According to a study by The Business Journals, roughly 40 percent of metropolitan Denver residents have bachelor’s degrees and almost 14 percent hold postgraduate degrees.

“Denver ranks No. 13 out of 102 major metropolitan markets for brainpower,” according to a study from G. Scott Thomas, who covers demographic trends in his “On Numbers” blog for The Business Journals. Colorado has the second-highest percentage of the population with degrees in the nation. However, many employees currently in the state’s workforce have moved to Colorado from out of state.

Advanced manufacturing needs highly skilled workers in computer-aided design, manufacturing with new materials and other technologies, embedded with skills in teamwork, communication, critical thinking and leadership to be competitive in a global economy. To meet the needs of the tech-savvy companies hiring today, college students must receive a relevant education in emerging technologies. Colorado universities should be leaders in providing that.

As we continue our close partnership with industry, MSU Denver is playing its part in helping to educate the next generation of advanced manufacturing leaders who will be instrumental in shaping the future of Colorado’s aerospace industry.

Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State University of Denver.