Employers in need of more workforce-ready technicians

Pam Sornson, JD

Demand is high for more local and regional skilled, workforce-ready technicians and Northeastern Junior College believes it can play a substantial role in meeting that need through the expansion of its Applied Technology Campus.

At an informational meeting Tuesday evening, advisory committee members for ATC programs, which include automotive technology, diesel technology, wind technology, welding technology and precision agriculture, were invited to learn more about the expansion project, and also share what their needs are.

Mike Anderson, chair of NJC’s agriculture department and a member of the capital campaign committee for the expansion project, started the meeting asking individuals in attendance what the most important things are that they need in order to grow their business or operation.

Russ Adels, who is in production agriculture, said they need a capable and willing workforce that is willing to stay in the area; right now when the “big city” calls, many workers leave and go there.

“It’s hard work to be in agriculture or a lot of other trade industries, we just need the capable people who are willing to work hard, to put in that sacrifice for a better future, not only for them, but for the rest of the world,” he said.

Welding professionals commented there just aren’t enough people to go out and do the jobs that need to be done and Shawn Seifried, a local electrical contractor, said there is a need to supply electricians with qualified help, that can assist with getting parts and equipment.

“We felt like we’ve got some of that feedback from other members in industry, that there’s a huge demand,” Anderson said, asking attendees if they would agree that “there is not a big enough workforce pool of trained technical skilled folks in the Northeastern Colorado region.”

Business professionals at the meeting agreed that is a fair assessment. Professionals from 21st Century Equipment said they need approximately 30 more workers to be fully staffed at all sites.

Anderson then asked what the issues are that they face in trying to retain employees or if that’s even issue.

“It’s when the big city calls they’re gone, unless they have a reason to be here, family or attachments to this area, the salary, 20 percent more salary, more than that even, that alone will alone will take them away pretty quickly,” Seifried said.

Alan Krier, local contractor and owner of Concrete Specialties, agreed that getting people to stay is a challenge, whether they are concrete finishers, truck drivers or equipment operators. He shared that his company is working on part of West Main St. right now, assisting with construction on the S-curve project, because Parsons Construction Group, the general contractor for the project, thought they could come to Sterling, rent a bunch of equipment and hire a number of local operators to assist with the project, but they found no one.

“It’s really hard to find skilled people,” Krier said.

21st Century professionals said being short staffed, they have plenty of work, but employees don’t always want to put in the extra time and work a longer day.

“It’s not always about the money anymore, there’s been a change in the thought process of these young people coming out, they value their time off, they value a lot of different things that previous generations didn’t. That’s probably one of our biggest challenges with our new younger workforce, is what excites them, what motivates them, what can we do to try and keep them around?” the ag equipment leaders said.

They noted there are some tremendous young people coming into the workforce and they are able to retain some of them, but just because they have a great employee today doesn’t mean that person will be there tomorrow, “their loyalty is not as good as it was in previous generations,” the 21st Century representatives said.

Anderson asked professionals at the meeting if there was a large enough pool of people to train, and resources and time were not an issue, what kind of training they want their employees to have when they first arrive.

Jason Hazlett, director of NJC’s renewable energy department, said for electricians they want to have students working at the same time they’re going to school, which means offering classes at night so that students can work during the day. Seifried said math skills are important, but a mechanical background would be good too and that’s something that could be taught in conjunction with some of the wind technician training.

Welding professionals said more and more workers in that industry need robotics skills, but that’s something not a lot of colleges are teaching; for precision ag, workers need an understanding of the technology itself; Jimmy Atencio, said diesel technology professionals are looking for employees with character, with troubleshooting and critical thinking skills; Layton Peterman, auto technology instructor, said soft skills, diagnostics and critical thinking skills are important for that industry.

NJC vision is to address the growing demand that all of these industries have and teach students the skills these businesses are looking through its expanded Applied Technology Campus. The new campus, which will be expanded from 54,000 square feet to 89,153 square feet, will feature centralized administrative offices; a single, consolidated resource library; a program-agnostic “lounge” area where students can study, eat lunch, socialize and/or collaborate; and a virtual classroom to allow NJC instructors to conduct classes in a polysynchronous format.

With the additional space they plan to add specific programs to addressed projected demand, which includes investing money into the precision ag program and adding skilled trades programs such as electrical and HVAC technician.

NJC anticipates breaking ground on the expansion project in May 2020, and completing phase one of the project by August 2021 and phases two and three by August 2022.

“We’ve simply outgrown our space; we can’t offer these opportunities to more students unless we expand this facility,” Anderson said, adding that “we’re trying to build a facility that we think the community will be proud of, that will help support not only NJC, but local community and all the businesses here that need trained technicians.”


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