Scott J. Sternberg
Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council
Perhaps one of the most captivating moments in recent history was the unfurling of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Many of us watched as the numerous sequential steps led to the full deployment of the most powerful telescope in history. Now, seemingly daily, the JWST sends back stunning images that are providing new insights into mankind’s understanding of the universe. As these moments provide great inspiration, and serve as a source of local pride, the conquest of space also has a strong economic impact.
Colorado is home to over 290 aerospace companies supporting over 33,000 employees and enjoys one of the highest concentrations of private aerospace workers in the nation. Boulder County represents nearly 23% of the state’s resources, with the City of Boulder producing much of that impact. Locally, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and The Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder are world-class assets that perennially generate a steady stream of scientists and engineers into the industry.
The university coexists with large aerospace employers such as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Blue Canyon Technologies/Raytheon, and Ball Aerospace. These companies are supported by a long list of businesses that either directly or indirectly feed the aerospace technology pipeline. The photonics industry, advanced manufacturing firms, innovative startup endeavors and a host of engineering design consultants all support the local industry. This compilation of resources embodies the evolution of the innovation path Boulder has traversed over the decades which has led to the strong industry clusters we celebrate today. However, today’s aerospace industry is not without its challenges.
This ecosystem strictly depends on a broad range of funding sources and interactions that cross federal and state agencies, universities, nonprofit groups, and, of course, the private sector. We are fortunate to have government representatives that understand how space science progresses and therefore advocate for ample NASA, DoD, and NSF budgets. At the state level, Colorado’s Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant Program continues to infuse early-stage companies with the needed capital to bring new and innovative ideas to the industry. The Boulder Economic Council proudly supports these initiatives as well as the work of the Colorado Space Coalition in its effort to continually elevate Colorado’s aerospace community.
As with many other industries, aerospace is facing difficulties hiring skilled labor. Additionally, a restricted supply chain is now a rate-limiting step. Boulder’s local economic vitality network is supporting efforts to not only better connect procurement professionals with local companies but also to deploy internships, apprenticeships and certification programs in areas such as advanced machining and manufacturing to assist both large companies and sub-contractors with obtaining and training workers. Either through certification programs such as the optics technology program at Front Range Community College or via apprenticeships at local businesses, a skills-based approach to both hiring and training and an expansion of work-based learning opportunities are starting to load the pipeline to meet both current and future demands.
At a time when our national economy has stumbled, the aerospace industry has provided stability to our community and has stressed the importance of an educational system and workforce rich in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Increasingly so, our economy has also become dependent on a continuous supply of skilled labor. To pave the way for future developments and discoveries, I urge local businesses and educational institutions to engage with these new work-based learning and skills-based hiring initiatives and perspectives to not only fuel our aerospace economy but to also increase the resiliency of all our key industries.