Colorado: Growing Their Own Talent

Leveraging his state’s impressive assets, Gov. John Hickenlooper aims to plant Colorado’s flag on the summit of red-hot growth sectors like cybersecurity and unmanned aerial systems.

By Jack Rogers
From the September/October 2018 Issue

When Gov. John Hickenlooper tells you “we’re growing our own,” he’s not referring to the burgeoning cannabis industry in the state that pioneered the legalization of recreational marijuana—he’s talking about the aggressive programs he’s put in place to ensure that Colorado’s universities and community colleges churn out graduates with the STEM skills essential to emerging high-tech growth sectors.

ColoradoColoradoIf your perception of Colorado’s growth potential resembles a Cheech and Chong movie, it’s time to expand your horizons: the Rocky Mountain State has leveraged an impressive array of assets to charge to the front of the pack in a bevy of high-tech growth sectors. When NORAD calls your state home, you’re obliged to up your game in cybersecurity and unmanned aerial systems, to name just two high-tech jobs engines. Colorado is rising to the challenge, big time.

In an exclusive interview with BF, Gov. Hickenlooper gave us an inside look at his formula for success in a state that has been a trailblazer for sustainable growth in the emerging industries of the 21st century.


With a new National Cybersecurity Center and its status as the primary home of the United States Air Force, Colorado has a healthy head-start on achieving its plans to be a national leader in cybersecurity, with a major cyber hub rapidly emerging in the Colorado Springs metro.

The National Cybersecurity Center in Colorado Springs resulted from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s pledge, in his 2016 State of the State Address, to create a center that “can be the country’s foremost authority on cybersecurity R&D, training and education.” (Photo:

“Colorado has been at the center of the cybersecurity industry for a long time, and the sector continues to grow,” Gov. Hickenlooper told BF. “Colorado Springs is home to the United States Northern Command along with more than 100 cybersecurity businesses. That, combined with the universities and colleges there, as well as the military expertise in this area, make it a prime location from which to train, educate and research. We took advantage of the assets we had to grow the cybersecurity industry.”

Gov. Hickenlooper has initiated several programs to ensure that Colorado produces new workers with the STEM skills needed in cybersecurity and other emerging high-tech growth sectors, including unmanned aerial systems.

“For almost a decade, Colorado has been one of the top destinations for millennials, and many of them are coming here highly trained with advanced degrees,” Hickenlooper said. “But we’re also growing our own by making sure our students are properly trained for these types of jobs. The University of Colorado in Colorado Springs is one of the top cybersecurity universities in the country.”

STEM is a priority area within the Colorado Department of Education and specifically called out in the state’s master plan for higher education (Colorado Rises: Advancing Education and Talent Development). “Strategic goal no. 1 of the plan is to increase high-demand credential completion by increasing STEM credentials, including healthcare, from 12,500 to 14,500 by 2025,” Hickenlooper explained.

The governor also has championed targeted resources like Careers In Colorado, a free online resource to help students and job seekers learn more about careers in growing industries in Colorado. Interactive, regional career pathways modules now exist for healthcare, construction, information technology, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and business operations.

The state recently unveiled a new website for apprenticeships ( which encourages job seekers and high school students to consider becoming an apprentice; the website connects them to programs across the state and hosts resources for business leaders, including case studies, how-to guides and testimonials from successful programs.

“Apprenticeships open doors for our students. They allow students to take charge of their own learning, provide Coloradans a foothold in a dynamic economy, and [they] power businesses with the people they need to thrive and innovate,” Gov. Hickenlooper told BF.

Another interactive web tool called Launch My Career provides students with information about the return on investment in a certificate or degree from public postsecondary schools, including technical schools and community colleges. Launch My Career measures college value to help students and their families, policymakers and postsecondary institutions make more informed decisions about the training and skills that provide the greatest value to students and their communities.

Gov. Hickenlooper’s reference to the state as a top destination for millennials was supported by a recent study from The Brookings Institute, which named Colorado Springs as the fastest-growing city for millennials in the U.S. We asked the governor to tell us what has made CO a magnet for millennials.

“We’ve been very intentional about making investments that are geared toward younger people,” he said. “Colorado is known for its outdoor recreation opportunities. Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are known for their extensive bike trail systems. Denver now has more music venues than Austin or Nashville. We’ve created a culture where entrepreneurs can build a business and a life. People come to visit and decide this is where they want to raise a family.”

Colorado conducted a perception survey last year of what talented young people are looking for in a community where they accept a job. Among the top drivers were: working with talented people; compensation; connection to people; success stories in the community; a collaborative place; a reasonable cost of living; and a stable tax environment.

The state scored particularly well in being a collaborative place with success stories and a place where you can connect with people. Colorado also tied California, Utah and Washington for the highest ratings for lifestyle; universities as a resource; being a family-friendly place; compensation and working with talented people.


Colorado is an aerospace powerhouse. It has the second-largest aerospace economy in the nation, and it is home to 180 businesses classified as aerospace companies (with more than 500 companies and suppliers providing space-related products and services). Direct employment in Colorado’s aerospace cluster increased for the third consecutive year in 2017 and grew at its fastest pace since 2007, rising 4.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. In total, the 55,430 workers in the aerospace cluster support an additional 135,450 workers in all industries throughout Colorado, bringing direct and indirect employment supported by the aerospace sector to 190,880 workers. Colorado’s aerospace industry generates $15.4 billion in total output each year.

Colorado is promoting itself as a premier location for aerospace business, civil space development and national security space-based capability. Eight of the nation’s top aerospace contractors have significant operations in the state.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) development in Colorado is robust, the governor told BF, with CO well on its way to establishing a leadership position in the emerging drone industry—a sector that experts believe can become a $70-billion industry by the end of this decade.

“Many of the technologies that are developed in Colorado for space satellites—including lightweight sensors for small satellites, advanced processing capability, composite materials, data analytics software, flight control software—directly contribute to UAS business development in Colorado,” Hickenlooper noted.


Nearly 36 percent of Colorado is federal land. We asked the governor if he supports the U.S. Interior Department’s recent effort to reduce the size of some national landmarks and to open up portions of these and other federal lands to development.

Gross Reservoir, in Boulder County, is part of a storage system that provides water for 1.4 million customers in the Denver metro area. Gov. John Hickenlooper is spearheading an effort to develop a regional strategy for shared water resources. (Photo: Cliff Grassmick, Daily Camera file)

“In Colorado, we’ve worked with our bipartisan federal delegation to ensure that Colorado’s national monuments remain unchanged,” Hickenlooper said. “Preserving and expanding our national monuments is in keeping with the best traditions of our country and is a significant [driver] of the outdoor recreation industry, which promotes public health and a cleaner environment while creating thousands of jobs.”

Colorado’s chief executive also offered a stark reminder that when pristine lands are opened for development, in most cases there’s no going back. “Once protections are removed from public lands and they become open for development, they rarely return to protected status,” Hickenlooper said.

Expansion of water resources has become a critical priority for the Western U.S. states. Gov. Hickenlooper told BF Colorado has been working diligently with neighboring states to develop a regional strategy for shared water resources.

“We’re working with Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to create contingency plans should the drought continue and the Colorado River not be able to sufficiently deliver enough water to meet the needs of the lower Colorado Basin states,” he said. “Additionally, our agreements with Kansas and Nebraska are strong examples of neighboring states working together, in this case for years, to create an historic agreement that provides certainty to the water users in the basin.”

He added, “I like to say collaboration happens at the speed of trust. There’s something really special about the ability for us all to work together to ensure stronger futures.”

Hickenlooper’s advice to states preparing to emulate Colorado’s legalization of pot: “Learn from us.”

“It’s been five years since voters legalized recreational adult use of marijuana, but the industry is still maturing,” he said. “We continue to address emerging issues like new products, more coordinated law enforcement, plant counts and edibles.”

Are there any perceptions of Colorado the governor would like to change?

“Colorado has a deserved reputation of being a world-class tourism destination, and a place with an exceptional quality of life,” Gov. Hickenlooper told us. “In Colorado, we can be serious about wanting the perfect place to raise a family or get away from it all, but we’re also serious about solving the world’s challenges—and we have the talent pool to make that happen. What needs to be more broadly known is that Colorado is one of the most pro-business states in America and a place where entrepreneurship and innovation are routinely celebrated.”