We’re hosting a series of CEO roundtables around Colorado to spark conversations across manufacturing industries and connect executives with new people and ideas. Much like in our weekly reporting, workforce is an ever-present topic. But as we also continue to report, the other big story in Colorado manufacturing is the evolving industry makeup of the sector and what it means for the future.

In La Junta (we didn’t host, but were invited to a Southeast Colorado Manufacturing Partnership meeting), the small but influential sector is challenged to keep young people in the area. In Denver and Fort Collins, manufacturers compete for talent in strong economies with fast-growing tech and service companies and a ravenous cannabis industry. In Grand Junction, there’s a healthy debate about manufacturing’s role in the future economy of the Western Slope, even as a compelling outdoor industry opportunity takes shape.

As we hear in the national narrative, the skill set most lacking is that of the manufacturing technician — an experienced tradesperson with exposure to production equipment and basic manufacturing processes. Invariably, companies search for malleable talent, individuals who check off core attributes around work ethic, creativity, and character, but, more than anything, can be trained and groomed in the specific processes of the employer. Manufacturers are adjusting to the shortage of core manufacturing talent by training their own.

In Montrose, the community is coming together around outdoor industry and the implications for manufacturing are potentially significant. Mayfly Outdoors (parent company of Ross Reels) is anchoring Colorado Outdoors, a mixed-use development that at build-out will feature 160 acres of light manufacturing, retail, residential, and commercial space as well as new open space and hiking trails.

Mayfly’s new multi-million dollar headquarters is under construction, slated for an early 2019 completion, and Montrose officials hope the project will be a magnet for not only like-minded outdoor industry companies — but talent.

Grand Junction has similar ambitions, with a new development and outdoor industry strategy. Riverfront at Las Colonias Park will also cluster outdoor industry business with other lifestyle companies and outdoor amenities. Bonsai Design is the anchor outdoor industry tenant.

(Leadership from both developments will be on hand at the Apparel & Outdoor Industry Manufacturing Summit in Denver on October 18 to present the projects in detail.)

Both are “build and they will come” strategies, aligned with a Colorado growth industry, that also hold promise in changing the perception of manufacturing. Workforce is key to the strategy: Increasingly, brands prefer domestic production. Western Slope planners hope that new tech-and-lifestyle inspired outdoor businesses, powering an uber-popular regional industry, will inspire workers to locate to the area — or stay — a new manufacturing workforce in the making. If successful, the region’s economic fortunes will be profoundly changed.

Hemp processing and related manufacturing may play a similar role on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. A new hemp processing facility is under construction in Yuma, Colorado, with another planned in the southeast corner of the state in Springfield.

Will hemp — and cannabis — become the new industrial face of ag-tech manufacturing in Colorado? It’s now possible. Much like a western Colorado outdoor industry “corridor” is a topic of conversation — stretching from Steamboat Springs to Durango — eastern Colorado’s manufacturing fortunes may be changed by an up-and-coming industry.

Today, manufacturing’s role in growing the rural economy in southeast Colorado is uncertain. Business is good for local companies Oliver Manufacturing, DeBourgh Manufacturing Co., and Falcon Industries, given the strong economy. But opportunistic moves by steel providers in the U.S. to raise prices to match newly tariffed offshore providers is an unintended outcome of President Trump’s trade policy. For La Junta’s local manufacturers, higher raw materials costs are certain to impact operating margins.

A wild card may be Colorado’s booming food sector, and an expanding role for this region’s robust ag supply chain. If providers here can increase the amount of natural and organic ingredients sourced by brands throughout the state, growth will follow. It’s not clear whether growers are connecting the dots.

In Fort Collins, agriculture and related food and beverage industry have already changed the economic development game. Northern Colorado is a craft manufacturing juggernaut. Craft beer, distilling, and food, along with related early-stage technology to support the industry, help drive the business landscape.

By design or not, traditional manufacturing industry is following suit. Manufacturing leaders here describe a “cottage manufacturing” feel to the community — a groundswell of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies locating here for lifestyle, for access to an R&D ecosystem including university talent, and for access to consumers.

What’s also hot is competition for the still-limited number of manufacturing technicians in the workforce. Today companies are competing not only with each other for talent, but with service and tech companies locating into one of America’s most appealing destinations.

We’ll review the feedback from manufacturers in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and other Colorado outposts later this fall, and also address the 800-lb. gorilla stalking the manufacturing community here: Can public officials, in partnership with the private sector and industry leaders, construct a strategy to support a manufacturing sector that’s evolving from top to bottom, with new industries, new technology, and a new workforce reality? Can Colorado enhance its manufacturing chops and compete nationally as a destination for growth companies and industries?

Big questions. Elusive answers. More in a month.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

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