Colorado Leaders Tell Commerce Secretary of Skilled-Worker Shortages, Regulation

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Wheat Ridge, July 1, 2016 | comments

Simplifying complex regulation and finding enough workers to grow and innovate top the list of priorities for Colorado business and civic leaders who were given the chance to help shape the federal government’s business priorities at an event Thursday.

Officials from local industry, economic development organizations, local government officials, representatives of federal labs and higher education gathered Thursday at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center to discuss expanding the digital economy and workforce development policy.

The gathering — led by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden — told U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker about local efforts to increase the number of young people entering the workforce with technical education or training.

Business leaders also described regulatory difficulties to Pritzker, who’d asked to hear about issues because her agency is the business community advocate within the federal government.

Robert Zubrin — founder of Lakewood-based Pioneer Energy, maker of mobile natural gas processing technologies — described having the opportunity to sell some industrial machinery to a buyer in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

Before approaching the Department of Commerce for an export license, his company sought to understand whether such products faced restrictions or limits due to their potential re-sale to nearby Iran and Russia, which are under U.S. trade sanctions.

Pioneer spent $11,000 on having lawyers gauge the likelihood and potential implications of a sale, he said.

“We hadn’t even applied for an export license — that was just trying to understand the rules,” Zubrin said. “The cost of compliance is annoying, but the things that’s really damaging to small businesses is the cost of simply trying to figure out the regulation.”

Another executive on hand — Heather Potters, CEO and co-founder of Golden-based PharmaJet Inc., a maker of needle-free injection devices for vaccines — recounted how her company’s opportunity to sell its product to clinics nationwide was been delayed and ultimately stalled by clashing perspective of two oversight bodies within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

That contrasts with the speed at which government and health agencies have gotten PharmJet’s products used elsewhere in the world, Potter said.

Her company also found itself outsourcing some engineering for components in its injectors to a Wisconsin-based firm because the technical expertise couldn’t be found in Colorado.

“There’s a complexity here that can make it difficult to innovate,” she said.

Hard to keep up

Lack of skilled workers — whether in software development, aerospace, biotechnology or skilled trades — was a common thread through Thursday’s discussion.

“Innovation’s growing at a such a fast rate, it’s hard for schools and universities to keep up,” said Aaron Moore, the Denver city manager for LinkedIn.

It’s something Pritzker hears everywhere she goes talking to U.S. businesses, she said.

"Every single one of them has told us they struggle to find the workforce that will let their businesses grow,” she said.

Of particular need are effective ways to help people in mid-career learn locally in-demand skills after their jobs disappear, Pritzker said, noting the thousands of energy workers laid off amid falling oil prices are a prime example.

“We need to come up with a mechanism to map demand and match that with skills,” she said. “What you see is different depending on where you are. What’s happening here in Denver is different from what’s happening in Dalton, Georgia; or in Houston; or in Boston or San Francisco.”

A key component of addressing skill shortages is for business leaders to stop viewing themselves as consumers of what’s produced by the local education system, but to see it something to engage with, support and shape, said Mizriam Cordero, vice president of government affairs for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Pritzker was heartened to hear about Denver efforts to create apprenticeship and job-training school programs adapted from what’s done in Switzerland, she said afterward.

“What I hear here is that the business culture is changing. That’s something we need to see all over if we’re going to address this,” she said. “It’s not possible without the business community.”

President Barack Obama set a goal of doubling the number of apprentices in the U.S. from the 400,000, and a U.S. Department of Labor program has new grant programs aiming to make that happen.

Apprenticeship are effective, but underutilized in the U.S., Pritzker said, noting that if America had a per capita internship rate of Germany there would be 7 million apprentices in the country.

While in the Denver area, Pritzker also attended a celebration of the second anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The patent office is part of the federal commerce department .

Content originally published by The Denver Business Journal on July 1st, 2016.
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