Demand booming for Colorado space workers

Tom Roeder The Colorado Springs Gazette (TNS)
In December 2002, around-the-clock crews monitor U.S. skies from the command center of the Northern Command, located deep within Cheyenne Mountain at the foot of the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs, Co.

COLORADO SPRINGS - With Colorado Springs on the verge of winning U.S. Space Command permanently, local leaders in politics and industry executives are racing to meet a burgeoning need for engineers, scientists and software experts to meet skyrocketing needs.

Colorado Springs is already ahead of almost every other community in America, with a highly skilled space workforce, Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said. But rapid growth of the space industry here threatens to outstrip even the Pikes Peak region's titanic pool of rocket scientists.

"We need to continue to grow that really starting with our kindergarten through 12th-grade education," said Reggie Ash, chief of defense and aerospace issues for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC.

Last month, Lamborn huddled with industry and education leaders at the Air Force Academy to examine the issue. No specific proposals have been offered but efforts are underway to create more scholarships, internships and to grow science programs in local schools to feed the industry's needs, he said.

"Everyone is already doing some good things for workforce development, but it is not coordinated," he said. "We are stronger by working together."

The issue, Lamborn said, is not filling jobs today. With the bulk of America's new Space Force in town, the military's training programs have put a large pool of space experts into the civilian jobs market.

Even with the military's top command overseeing the Pentagon's space missions in town on a provisional basis, the space business is booming here like nothing the Pikes Peak region has seen since miners struck gold in Cripple Creek.

"If you look at the space community, it has increased dramatically," said Seth Harvey, co-founder of Bluestaq, a booming Colorado Springs startup that builds software for space applications.

With startups and established contractors like Boeing and Lockheed growing the Colorado Springs payrolls, Harvey said competition for space workers here is fierce.

"You need more people," he said.

For Harvey, that means training new workers to build his staff.

"Our goal is to create an internship program that allows us to tap into excellence across this entire country," he said. "The place to start that is right in our backyard."

Computer science and engineering students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs can now apply for Bluestaq's $10,000 scholarship that comes with a guaranteed internship at the company. It's a foot in the door for future employees and allows Bluestaq to recruit top students, Harvey said.

"I think we as an industry embrace this as our culture," Harvey said.

Ash said training space workers is key to keeping the Pikes Peak region's economy booming.

"There are a significant number of defense contractors in this area ... and that is one of the reasons El Paso County comparatively has done well through the recession," he said.

The employment website glassdoor.com shows dozens of space jobs openings now in Colorado Springs, with most salaries topping $100,000 annually.

Those big paychecks support nearly every other aspect of the economy here, from real estate to restaurants cashing in on the space boom.

"There are so many benefits to this," Ash said.

Lamborn said that while Congress is looking to curb federal spending in the coming years, military space operations aren't likely on the chopping block.

"There is a strong consensus in Congress that the threats in space are so immediate that the funding must grow," he said.

Ash and Lamborn said Colorado Springs is a clear front-runner as the competition to house U.S. Space Command enters its final stage.

But to tackle the future of space threats and to fend off competition from Alabama, Florida, Nebraska and Texas to keep the command, and thousands of contractor jobs in town, the workforce must grow, Lamborn said.

"There is a big need for keeping the pipelines open for new talents coming into the workforce," Lamborn said.