As Colorado hurts for more early childhood educators, nurses, firefighters and workers across other industries, state legislators are attempting to fill critical workforce gaps with a pair of bills that would provide free training to an estimated 20,000 students and support about 15,000 graduating high school students each with $1,500 scholarships.
One of the measures would cover education costs — including tuition, fees, books and supplies — for students wanting to teach elementary schoolers, preschoolers or infants and toddlers as well as students interested in nursing, construction, firefighting, law enforcement and forest management. A second bill would provide scholarships to students heading to community colleges, trades schools or universities to prepare for jobs in health care, manufacturing, construction, finance, engineering, IT, education and behavioral and mental health.
Both bills, expected to be introduced later this week, have bipartisan support as they aim to ease the heavy costs students often shoulder while learning skills they need to join the workforce. Funding for each bill would stretch for two years and come from the state’s general fund.
“With this significant infusion of resources, it really is a jump-start to try and get more of our traditional and nontraditional age students into these industries that are so desperate for workers,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, said ahead of a Tuesday morning news conference announcing the pieces of legislation.
McCluskie is a prime sponsor on the bill that would fund training for students.
That bill proposes spending $45 million on students’ education costs from the state’s general fund, including $38.6 million to support students earning a certificate or associate degree at a public community college, local district college or area technical college.
A separate $5 million would be directed to short-term nursing programs at community colleges with the goal of preparing more nurses to staff local hospitals. And $1.4 million would be funneled to a competitive grant program facilitated by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and available to registered apprenticeship programs in building and construction trades.
The free education initiative builds on the Care Forward Colorado Program, which Gov. Jared Polis introduced in August as a way to help the state overcome a crippling shortage of health care workers. That program, funded by $26 million of federal COVID stimulus funding over two years, is offering free schooling for students pursuing careers as certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomy technicians, medical assistants or dental assistants.
More than 1,400 students in training through the program have graduated from the Colorado Community College System, local district colleges and area technical colleges since last fall, according to information Gov. Jared Polis cited during the news conference. Along with lawmakers, he hopes to replicate the success of the program in other industries that have been plagued by staff shortages throughout the pandemic.
The other piece of legislation that would award scholarships to graduating high schoolers could benefit more than one-fourth of the graduating class of 2024, according to lawmakers.
The bill would help students in eligible disciplines cover expenses for books, fees and tuition and would expedite their path through higher education and training, said Rep. Matt Martinez, D-Monte Vista, who is sponsoring the bill.
“This is the type of meaningful legislation that is really going to put dollars in the hands of our students and (make) sure that they have the skills necessary to be successful,” said Martinez, who previously worked for nine-and-a-half years at Adams State University.
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.