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How Emily Griffith Technical College Is Helping To Ensure Clean Water for the Future

The importance of our water utilities cannot be overstated; they are the quiet guarantors of our public health and environmental wellness. Despite a half-century of progress under the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) systems of rigorously enforced water regulations, the past decade’s news cycles have been peppered with stories of water system failures that tend to overshadow the resilient everyday safeguards that our water industry provides.

When even minor system failures are reported, we hear soundbites like ‘insufficient utility funding,’ ‘government corruption,’ ‘neglect’ and ‘lack of qualified staff to operate our vital infrastructure,’ all muddled together in the pre-politicized, modern context of climate change and water scarcity. The atmosphere of alarm is easy to understand, as water touches all of us fundamentally.

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In Colorado’s Front Range, with relatively pristine mountain water sources and long-term economic growth, we are buffered from the worst-known elements. Our local utilities maintain an exceptionally high level of service without meaningful risk of catastrophic failures, but they do share equally in one truly alarming trend common to these news events: the lack of trained professionals to operate our increasingly technical, highly specialized public water infrastructure.

Consistent, correct system operation is a fine line between both our safe drinking water and exposure to a host of microbial pathogens, toxins and carcinogens, and our healthy rivers and their decay into dead zones due to oxygen depletion and microbial and nutrient pollution. Lack of a qualified workforce is a looming crisis that cannot be ignored.

Here, near the mountain sources, our water system failures would literally trickle down to the country’s most critical water supplies. In this vital region, the Water Quality Management program at Emily Griffith Technical College is helping to address the urgent workforce demand by offering high-quality, entry-level operator training to all who wish to learn.

Our local water industry is a dynamic environment full of dedicated professionals, technical innovation, partnerships, growth and opportunity. Dozens of examples of exciting projects present themselves at a glance: new treatment plants being constructed to meet the challenges of a complex array of emerging contaminants, aging infrastructure being replaced at unprecedented efficiencies, resource recovery plants producing natural gas and fine agricultural fertilizers from what was considered “wastewater” only a decade ago, are just a few examples.

There are countless career opportunities across a fascinating technical spectrum, but water seems relatively unrecognized as a viable career path among our younger generations. This lack of awareness is a critical problem that bears an increased risk of future system failures.

READ: Why We Need to Build a Better Trades Workforce — And How to Build It

USEPA requires certification by exam to operate water facilities. While a 4-year college degree is not necessary, passing the exams calls for substantial knowledge of hydraulic systems and equipment with a nuanced grasp of environmental science, applied chemistry and microbiology. As the industry grows more technically sophisticated, it becomes more difficult to pass the exams without first-hand experience or formal education.

The Emily Griffith Water Quality Management program is in a unique position to bridge this knowledge gap by providing this specialized training through a 10-month certificate program to all interested candidates, but more students are needed to fill the burgeoning local demand for operators.

Emily Griffith Technical College is dedicated to a learning approach and curriculum that provide the highest level of entry-level operator training and exam and career preparation. Our accelerated program covers the broad scope of the industry, providing the strong scientific foundation required while keeping student debt at a minimum.

Steeped in a long tradition of trades education, we focus on providing an experiential, hands-on learning environment. Students perform the chemistry and microbiological laboratory analyses while operating small-scale water and wastewater systems to reinforce the principles they are learning and benefit from unique hands-on learning opportunities to help them grasp subtle concepts.

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With a current job placement rate of around 90%, the program meets its goal of supplying highly qualified water professionals. Graduates are welcomed into an industry where their education is valued, they have a clear path of career growth and life-long learning, and they attain the long-term financial stability and benefits that have historically been the hallmarks of a career as a water operator.

Emily Griffith Technical College is one participant in a growing effort to increase awareness of water quality as a meaningful career path. There is an immediate and urgent demand for good operators to sustain the traditions of public health custodianship and environmental stewardship that our industry represents.

To explore water quality as a career path and learn more about the Water Quality Management program at Emily Griffith, visit or call 720-423-4700 to speak with an Emily Griffith Career Navigator.


Matthew McfaddenMatthew McFadden is the Water Quality Management Instructor at Emily Griffith Technical College. He holds an MSCE from the University of Washington and has a wide range of technical experience spanning 15 years in the industry as a professional engineer. In addition to facilities design and construction management, he has been principal investigator and lead author for numerous water quality-related research efforts.

Why We Need to Build a Better Trades Workforce — And How to Build It

Forget, “No one wants to work anymore.” The lament now might be, “No one knows they can launch a high-paying career without incurring student debt.” Employers in construction, manufacturing and other skilled trades are facing an ongoing labor shortage. Meanwhile, students are attending four-year colleges, borrowing large sums and accepting entry-level jobs that do not cover the loans plus living expenses.

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Why don’t people just sign up for classes in welding, machining or carpentry, earn a certificate, and make a high-paying salary right away? Employers and educators say the answer is complicated.  

According to the Common Sense Institute in its report, “The Price of Higher Education in Colorado,” since 2002 tuition and in-state fees have grown more than 240%. Separately, the Inflation Calculator, using CPI data, notes that inflation from 2002 to October 2022 was 53%.  

While students are pursuing careers that demand four-year degrees, the skilled trades are facing a talent gap. “In construction, we have 185,000 employed in Colorado,” says Dave Davia, executive vice president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association (RMMCA). “By 2030 we will need 50,000 more.”  

Davia, who is on the CSI board of directors, says there is a stigma associated with these jobs. “High schools in the ’80s started taking shop and hands-on learning out of the schools, and it was replaced by college for all,” he says. “The perception is trades are a fallback.”  

Training Tradespeople  

To change this perception, RMMCA and other contractor associations established Western States College of Construction, which offers professional programs for HVAC/R (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration), pipefitting, plumbing and sheet metal. The programs, which are located on 10 campuses throughout the state, consist of four to five years of on-the-job and related instruction. Students do not pay tuition, as employers sponsor them.

The school’s website notes that during apprenticeships, students can earn salaries of $78,000 to $80,000, and earn more after completion. That’s higher than the average annual salary in Colorado, which ZipRecruiter reported at $56,716 in October.

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According to the Colorado Talent Pipeline Report, there has been strong demand for workers in construction and manufacturing, and the pandemic played a role. There has been a surge in residential construction in the state, with building permits increasing by 50 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis between April 2020 and July 2021. Supply chain disruptions sped up the shift from global to domestic manufacturing.  

Also according to the report, organizations that are struggling to find talent need to shift from degree-based hiring to skills-based. Some educators agree. “We should all be thinking about our skills and our trades and what it is we want to do,” says Linda Van Doren, Ed.D., vice president of education for Emily Griffith Technical College. “It doesn’t have to happen in that traditional pathway of college right after high school.”   

That pathway is not necessary for everyone, Dr. Van Doren says, and it’s not financially attainable for many. Emily Griffith Technical College offers financial aid and scholarships, and some programs are Pell Grant eligible. Students can work at job sites where they get feedback, learn how to work with teams and improve their problem-solving skills. “Softer skills like teamwork, critical thinking, communication, those are things that are still valued by employers,” she says. “Those are elements we bake into all our programs as well.”  

Another challenge is that some parents don’t want their kids to attend trade school. “We’re in a place where we’ve tended to devalue certain professions and held others up,”  Van Doren says.  

Changing Careers 

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the mean hourly wage for construction and extraction in 2021 was $26.18. That’s lower than the $30.24 for the state mean hourly wage for all occupations, but higher than sales and related ($25.73) and food preparation and serving ($16.26).  

Many trades students are adult learners leaving low-paying jobs. “The workforce of tomorrow is in the workforce today,” says Matthew Sweeney, dean of workforce services at Rocky Mountain Education Center (RMEC) of Red Rocks Community College. “We identify how we can better identify where there might be people who are underemployed and can transition.”

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High school students are not the best audience for this messaging. “They are not thinking about stability or job benefits,” Sweeney says. “They are thinking, I am so sick of school.” Adult students are making a transition, or in some cases, are sent to RRCC by employers to update skills such as safety training to comply with OSHA regulations.  

Trades jobs have become safer over the years, and that has helped generate interest. “If you go back in time, trades were dangerous, dirty and looked down upon because of those factors,” says Kevin A Dowell, lead trainer in welding and corporate training at Community College of Denver Advanced Manufacturing Center. “That’s no longer the case.”  

Dowell adds that students like the idea of starting a new career without the time and expense of a four-year degree, and are interested in specific attributes of each trade. For example, the machining classes appeal to people who like the predictability and consistency of the work. Welding is attractive to people who like repetitive work, and to creative people. (In fact, CCD also offers a noncredit welding-for-artists workshop.) “Some of these occupations really only attract a small part of the population,” Dowell says. “But to people who it does appeal to, nothing is a better fit.”   

At BuildStrong Academy of Colorado, the average age of students is low to mid-30s, and they see opportunities in construction. “A lot of times, they have no experience,” says career coach Kristin Davenport. “They have never picked up a tape measure or worked with a circular saw. We are empowering them to see there is this whole world out there.”  

BuildStrong Academy offers boot camps that are four weeks (four sessions a week) or eight weeks (two nights per week), as well as courses in concrete, carpentry, electrical and others. The classes cover construction skills and life skills. “One hundred percent of the employers say they are looking for people who show up and do the job,” Davenport says. “They have tried the more traditional methods of hiring, and if they are getting applications at all, they are getting people who may not even schedule an interview, or they may last a week.”  

A scholarship fund covers the cost of tuition, and employers are hiring graduates quickly. “We’re going to see a lot more programs like this,” Davenport says. “Employers are willing to be open-minded about their hiring practices.”  

Employers are also building their own workforce development programs. The general contractor Swinerton in 2020 launched the Swinerton Craft Technical Skills Training Program. It is based on National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) curricula and offers carpentry, drywall and construction craft labor apprenticeship programs.  

“When we think about our approach to workforce development, it isn’t just to get people out of high school and into apprenticeships,” says Kerry Swain, director, field talent partner. “We created a career blueprint for them.”  

Swinerton also offers the Foremen Development Series, which focuses on helping foremen develop the soft and technical skills they need to become better foremen and prepare them to take the next step in their career to superintendent. “Some of the people we recruit, we realize they may not work with us for their whole career, and that’s fine,” Swain says. “Our goal is to raise the competency levels.”

Learning New Skills for the New Normal

As of June 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that the United States’ unemployment rate was 11.1 percent. That’s higher than during the height of the Great Recession (10.6 percent) and at the peak of the ’80s recession in 1982 (10.8 percent).

Though these numbers represent a huge improvement over the previous month, 17.8 million people are unemployed, including restaurant and hotel employees, retail staff, people who support the sports, travel and entertainment sectors, oil and petroleum workers, software developers, writers, higher education administrators, and this doesn’t even begin to tally up the losses for gig workers.

Though the US government approved the mighty $2-plus trillion CARES Act to shore up the economy, a measure that put $1,200 in every wallet, the coronavirus continues to rage across the country and the federal government’s $600 unemployment enhancements expired in late July.

For those who have lost jobs, experienced furloughs or seen pay reductions, the pandemic represents a chance to not only adapt to the new normal but also retool what you have to offer. Were you stuck in a low-wage job? Is there another career you’ve wanted to pursue? Who might be hiring in the pandemic/post-pandemic job market? Do you need new skills for this brave new world that’s coming?

Historically, when recessions hit, people tend to return to school. That’s because the opportunity cost—the jobs and earnings you give up while in school—plummets, making education more attractive. A certificate or new degree can add shine to your resume and position you for a career do over.

Nobody knows what the job market will look like in the aftermath of the coronavirus, but if you find yourself recently unemployed, now might be a good time to reconsider your education, especially if you have a clear goal in sight and can achieve your goal without incurring too much debt.

Because of the pandemic, colleges and universities recognize that prospective students’ financial situations may have changed. “Even now, people should be able to accomplish their educational goals,” observes Mj Huebner, the vice president for admission and financial aid at Kalamazoo College and veteran enrollment management consultant. “Talk to a financial aid counselor. Colleges and universities have really tried to understand individual family circumstances as they relate to unexpected COVID expenses. Colleges and universities have also tried to make changes to allow for a more seamless and easier going-to-college process.”

Depending on what you want to accomplish, community colleges and career and technical institutions can offer lower-cost—and quicker—alternatives to traditional four-year colleges and universities. Should you want to become a medical doctor, you can certainly start at a community college, which can lower your overall costs, but you’ll finish in medical school—six or seven years down the line. If you want to become a pharmacy technician—a hot degree if ever there was one in our nation’s hot zones—you can earn a certificate in an accredited program and begin practicing in less than a year.

At Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver, educators have moved most courses online or created hybridized models of in-person and online models for programs such as automotive, welding and cosmetology that require hands-on instruction. The college also continues to offer programs in technology and healthcare to prepare students for post-coronavirus workforce trends they’re already noticing.

“The widespread telehealth and work-at-home phenomena are likely to continue,” says Stephanie Donner, executive director at Emily Griffith Technical College. “So jobs that support home-based workers and healthcare should be in high demand. Think software developers, network administrators, cyber security professionals and training help. And clearly there’s a huge need for additional healthcare workers and domestic manufacturing capacity to scale medical products and equipment.”

To that end the college recently launched the online Google IT Support Professional Certificate to add to programs they already offer in computer networking, cybersecurity, web development, multimedia and video production along with healthcare opportunities such as practical nursing, phlebotomy, pharmacy technician and targeted trades.

“These programs and others that we offer can help displaced workers prepare for the future,” Donner explains. “Emily Griffith is here to help people reenergize their careers and return to work re-skilled and ready to contribute to a new Colorado.”

Leslie Petrovski is a freelance writer supporting Emily Griffith Technical College.