Colorado has two job openings for every available worker. Here’s the plan to fill that gap

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A banner advertises job openings at this United States Postal Service Facility in Commerce City, Dec. 1, 2022.

Colorado is launching a full-frontal assault on its 38-percent job gap – that’s the difference between job openings and actual hires. The state is changing its approach to fill its high-demand, often better-paying jobs, targeting millions of dollars in grant opportunities for businesses to train or upskill workers. 

The gargantuan task means enticing many people already in the workforce into further training or education and targeting historically untapped groups with more training and education.

“We need to be doing more to help connect Coloradans, our home-grown talent with skills that lead to good-paying jobs and careers,” said Gov. Jared Polis.

How bad is the gap? This summer there were 208,000 job openings compared to 129,000 hires, according to the ninth annual Talent Pipeline Report, which analyzes and explains labor market information, shifts in job demand, top jobs and the state strategy to fill those jobs. The report is produced by the state agency the Colorado Workforce Development Council in partnership with a number of other state agencies.

Colorado is just one of 14 states with more jobs than before the pandemic-induced recession. But it also ranks 11th in the country for the number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs.

It’s not just the 3.6 percent unemployment rate. There are other factors behind the gap

Historically Colorado has relied on importing highly educated people to fill jobs. That won’t work anymore. In-state migration is slowing, a high school population is expected to plateau and then drop due to declining birth rates, and the workforce is aging. The lack of affordable childcare has led to a drop in women’s participation in the labor force.

That means the state needs to change its approach to getting people into top jobs through alternative pathways at any stage of life: folks in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, many of whom are already in the workforce.

“We know that a four-year degree isn't the right path for every person and every job for many,” Polis said at the report’s release. “It's apprenticeships, on-the-job learning, technical or community college education, dual and concurrent enrollment in high school and many other pathways.”

Colorado currently has 250,000 adults without a high school diploma, 600,000 people with some college and no degree, 45,000 students who left K-12 over the past three years, and hundreds of thousands who already have a diploma, credential or a degree but need a chance to upskill in this new labor market, the report said.

The current retraining cycle is often too slow and skilled talent is needed more quickly than education and training programs can produce. Further, the cost of traditional college and training programs are unaffordable for many.  


First, what are Colorado’s top jobs?

 “Top Jobs” are in high demand and they provide a living wage. There are 178 occupations in top jobs, including computers, business and finance, engineering, farming, installation and repair, legal, transportation and moving and health care, among others.

Many of the occupations that fell off the “Top Jobs” list this year because the wages didn’t keep pace with inflation are in critical fields such as direct care (nursing homes), health care, and education.

The most job postings in Colorado last year were heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, followed by registered nurses and software developers.

The vast majority of top jobs require some type of post-secondary education and increasing numbers are linked to apprenticeships.


What’s the strategy to close labor market gaps?

Over the past two years, Colorado has invested nearly $650 million into higher education and workforce development. That includes money to help students earn a postsecondary credential in high school, free adult training, apprenticeships and industry-focused training in key areas like health care, mental health, education and energy.

But now the state is also focusing intensively on giving learners the chance to earn credentials and degrees at any stage of life. It also means connecting historically under-tapped groups, such as newcomers to the country, aging workers and those with disabilities to rapidly growing industries. 

Research from the U.S. Department of Labor shows people with disabilities can offer companies a competitive edge, reduce turnover, boost productivity, and improve company culture.

On the education side, the state is placing more effort into boosting work-related learning like apprenticeships at all levels of education and giving credit for prior learning. Over the next two years, it will develop more ‘stackable credential’ programs in high-demand industries. Those are sequential post-secondary degrees or certificates that allow workers to progress in a career. One state law includes $25 million for reskilling and upskilling workers to earn a short-term credential.

Another higher education goal is to have 100 percent of the state’s degree programs have some early work-based learning experiences.

 “We have students who get three years into a discipline and then decide, ‘Wait! Why am I doing finance? I don’t even like numbers!’” said Angie Paccione, director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “We want to make sure they get some early career experience so they can make better-informed choices.”

Other laws would grant an associate’s degree to people who have earned at least 70 credit hours in college.

“This program has a potential to serve more than 700,000 Coloradans who have attained some college, but no degree,” said Caitlin McKennie, a state talent pipeline economist.

At the high school level, one goal is to create a system where students graduate with a diploma but also a 2-year degree or industry credential that can lead to a good job.

Finally, the state will focus on the quality of work, educating employers in retention and productivity strategies.