Lift Off

With new investments and partnerships, MSU Denver is revolutionizing aviation, aerospace and advanced manufacturing education.

By Roger Fillion

Publish Date: June 30, 2014

Colorado is big on space. But a graying workforce and budget constraints are among the obstacles that could hamper its ascent into higher orbit.  

The Centennial State boasts the second-largest aerospace economy in the nation. Colorado companies build satellites and interplanetary spacecraft. They crunch intelligence data for the federal government. They develop critical components for spacecraft and collect high-resolution satellite photographs.

Colorado is home to 140 aerospace companies, and more than 400 companies and suppliers providing space-related products and services according to a 2013 study by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp (EDC).

Companies range from heavyweights like Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace & Technologies to smaller outfits like DigitalGlobe, a provider of high-resolution satellite photos, and Golden Spike, an upstart air-transport company.

But the state’s myriad aerospace companies share a crisis of sorts: A need to fill the departing ranks of older employees. According to the Metro Denver EDC study, the state's aerospace sector has a larger share of employees between the ages of 35 and 64 years old than other industries. It also has a smaller share of workers in the 16- to 34-year-old age range.

“For us it’s concerning,” said Vikki Schiff, vice president of Human Resources for Ball Aerospace, which employs about 2,200 people in Colorado and 2,800 nationwide.

“We have 500 people who could walk out today with a pension,” added Schiff. “In five years it will be double that.” Ball Aerospace’s turnover rate for now, however, is just 4%, with older employees staying with the company, Schiff noted.

For some companies, the workforce situation is even more pressing.

“The manufacturing and aerospace industries are saying, ‘We can’t find talent.’ They are bringing their business back from China and they want homegrown talent, but we have a shortfall in workforce. We need to educate our own people,” said Peggy Severson, Business Development Representative for the Denver Office of Economic Development.

MSU Denver is among the institutions aiming to help fill these gaps. Last year the University unveiled plans for a new $60 million building to house its aerospace-related programs under one roof. Current plans call for workers to break ground on the 142,000-square-foot Aerospace and Engineering Sciences (AES) Building in August 2015.

“Our overall goal? To prepare the most skilled, workforce-ready advanced manufacturing professionals available in the state of Colorado,” MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan said.

The state’s workforce is teeming with aerospace types. The Metro Denver EDC study counted 25,150 people employed in private Colorado aerospace companies in 2013. That represents 0.9% of the state’s total employment, and the nation’s highest concentration of private aerospace workers.

The nine-county metro Denver region, in turn, ranks first in private-sector aerospace employment out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, with 19,810 workers, according to the Metro Denver EDC study.

“When we’re looking at large space economies across the country, Colorado is definitely one of the key players,” said Patty Silverstein, the Metro Denver EDC’s chief economist and president of Development Research Partners in Littleton.

A 2013 Brookings Institution report echoed: “Colorado has amassed a formidable, layered, and diverse space economy that contributes heavily to the state’s economic well-being.”

And while the report said the state’s space economy “seems well situated to flourish,” it warned of “ongoing trends” that could “imperil” its momentum.

“On the skills front, a potential wave of retirements in the next five years will severely test the ability of the space industry to maintain a high-quality technical workforce,” the study noted.

Not if MSU Denver has anything to say about it. The seeds for the University’s AES program were planted in fall 2012 after Jordan met with a policy specialist at the White House. “I learned that the aerospace industry was clamoring for educated U.S. professionals who had the skills to build and manufacture their state-of-the-art designs for everything from satellites and rockets to robots and renewable energy platforms,” he recalled.

“On the heels of that meeting, President Obama launched his Advanced Manufacturing Initiative and states began competing to add high-quality manufacturing jobs to their workforce mix.”

The AES initiative was born. Jordan and fellow faculty members met with industry leaders around the state to get input for the new curriculum. They also visited other colleges around the country “attempting to fulfill this educational need,” Jordan said, and they sat down with government representatives to discuss legislative priorities.

Plans were formally launched to develop “a state-of-the-art building, providing students with an integrated curriculum and the technology and labs necessary to give them a highly experiential, relevant education,” according to Jordan.