Wanted: Flexibility in degree attainment
Illustration showing a person in a graduate cap pulling a lever to power a large lightbulb labeled "ideas."

By J. J. Ament | Jan. 1, 2023

COLORADO BUSINESSES HAVE BEEN ON A ROLLER COASTER since the start of the pandemic. We’ve faced everything from sudden shutdowns to supply chain delays, a massively expanding regulatory environment, and drastically increasing costs. The ups and downs of running a company are pushing today’s employers to be more flexible and resilient than ever before.

To sustain our economy under these conditions, perhaps no factor matters more than a well-educated, well-trained workforce. Supporting the talent that helps our companies innovate, operate, and compete requires an education system and approach to workforce development that are as nimble as successful businesses. There’s no question that a degree from one of Colorado’s esteemed colleges or universities opens doors – creating access to opportunity, prosperity, and a life of choice.


For many years, Colorado has leaned heavily on degree attainment in its economic development work – positioning our workforce as one of the most highly educated talent pools in the nation. And although COVID-19’s disruptions have begun to show up in our economic data, that well-educated, well-trained workforce has helped Colorado maintain one of the nation’s top economies for several years running. U.S. News & World Report ranked Colorado the No. 2 state economy in the nation in 2022, based on business environment, employment, and growth.

We are proud of Colorado’s exceptional talent pool, named No. 1 by CNBC’s Top States for Business rankings. But we are not blind to the rest of the numbers. Yes, 48 percent of the Metro Denver workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, outpacing the U.S. by 15 percent. Yet, a robust economy needs the other 52 percent of our talent pool to be highly trained, as well.

Until the recent surge in inflation, college prices significantly outpaced inflation for many years. Against this backdrop, young adults without college degrees are evaluating whether an investment in postsecondary education will provide the same ROI in the economy of the future as it has in the past, according to a recent study from Public Agenda. That’s the case even though the full cost of tuition is usually offset by student aid.

In addition, employers are finding that screening applicants by college attainment alone is not sufficient. In Colorado, we have more open positions than can be filled – nearly a quarter of a million jobs with no one to fill them, according to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Screening only by college degree also hits people of color particularly hard, eliminating nearly 72 percent of Black adults and about 80 percent of Hispanic adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of course, labor shortages and inclusive hiring are not the only contextual factors pushing us to look more closely at workforce and higher education in Colorado. We know that future jobs will require technical expertise, including data analytics and digital literacy, and also the human skills that help us solve problems, communicate effectively, and think critically. These are skills our workforce must learn and be able to promote to find employment – no matter what educational path they choose.


We also must recognize that the educational and career paths of yesteryear no longer resonate with all of today’s workers. Many talented employees are not seeking lifelong careers like those in generations before them; rather, they may seek a series of jobs that align with their passions, skills, and interests. Gallup suggests that millennials are more apt to job-hop, and this turnover costs the economy billions. Deloitte says as many as 43 percent of Gen Z employees have second part- or full-time jobs – both for financial security and to tap into their entrepreneurial spirits. Today’s system must promote lifelong learning and allow our workforce to fine-tune their education over time – adding skills and credentials as industry, and their place in it, evolves.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce believes this moment requires new approaches and fresh ideas. There’s more than one way to prepare students for the labor force. We believe there is an historic opportunity to reinvigorate workers, reimagine higher ed, restructure talent pipelines, and resolve the Great Resignation in Colorado in a way that’s both strategic and inclusive. This could be especially important for talent that is non-degreed and people who are underemployed, looking for new opportunities, low-wage workers, and those who may have previously dropped out and are interested in re-engaging in work.


We envision a Colorado where there is not one right way to prepare for a professional job. Traditional higher ed systems will always have their value in the job market, but we also see the value that apprenticeships, alternative education pathways, and upskilling and reskilling bring to our economy. We support a job market that does not disqualify an applicant solely because they don’t have a degree, but looks at their human skills, trainability, and potential.

An educated workforce and citizenry are key to a healthy economy and state. Taking a new approach that both responds to this moment and prepares us for the future requires businesses and higher education to work as closely together as we ever have. We’re ready.

J. J. Ament is president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the leading voice for Colorado’s business community. He earlier was chief executive officer of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and has chaired the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

Illustration at top: Dave Cutler