On paper, Denver’s economy is booming. The state alone has seen an influx of over 100,000 new residents in the past year alone, and we boast a 3.3 percent unemployment rate. According to Forbes, Colorado ranks number four for its economic climate. While the facts speak for themselves, it is useful to note that every story has two sides, and the grass is not always greener.

Most longtime Denver residents agree on one thing: housing prices have skyrocketed, and realistic options are scarce. This has introduced a serious displacement issue within the city, with lower income earning families being pushed further and further out. This makes access to public transportation increasingly difficult, with decreased job security following suit. So despite Denver’s critical need for manual labor, rising living costs are causing workers to migrate away from the city.

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This is where organizations like the Colorado Construction Institute come in. The Urban Land Conservancy had the chance to sit down with CEO and co-founder Michael Smith to learn more about CCI’s impact on the Denver metro area. CCI has been one of ULC’s nonprofit tenants since their inception in 2013. They recently made the move from our Tramway Nonprofit Center in the Cole neighborhood to our warehouse space at 48th and Race Street in the Elyria neighborhood, which offers thousands more square feet for the organization’s growing business.

Smith recognized early on the problem that Denver would face regarding a lack of labor force for a mountain of construction work. He noticed another persistent issue, one that remains prevalent across the country; a high school age population that had either dropped out of school, or was considered at risk. This helped spark the idea of two of CCI’s current programs, Denver Youthbuild and Building Pathways.

“We have a massive problem in Colorado,” Smith said. “We can’t grow unless we build. And we can’t build unless we have a strong working class. And we don’t have a strong working class because we are moving them out of the area.”

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CCI has undergone many program related changes since their founding in 2013, when the organization received a grant from the Piton Foundation. Change has been good for CCI, who now has three major programs under it’s belt, and two on the way in the next year. Denver Youthbuild is a twelve-month long program for out of school youth, and funded entirely by the U.S. Department of Labor. The agreement is that CCI students must be simultaneously earning their high school diploma or GED during the program.

Jesus Martinez, 18, has been a part of the Youthbuild program for six months, and plans to graduate with his high school diploma next fall. His schedule consists of four hours each day with CCI, and is supplemented with 16 hours of welding classes every week. Martinez said that his time with CCI helped turn his life around, and for that he is very appreciative.

“CCI gave me a second chance,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t doing too well in school, my grades weren’t very good either and I was hanging out with the wrong people. Then I came here and went from a kid who didn’t like to do anything, to actually being excited to come in and learn.”

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When Smith recognized the impact that Youthbuild had on youth in the community, he realized more could be done. “If Youthbuild is so great, why are we waiting for students to drop out of high school?” Smith asked himself. And with that, Building Pathways was born. The program utilizes a project based learning model, and allows CCI to partner directly with schools to implement construction based learning into core classes. At only one year old, Building Pathways has multiple partnerships, with more schools hoping for incorporation in the near future.

CCI’s third program directly addresses solving today’s labor crisis. The construction boot camp is a four week intensive pre-apprentice program that is both industry and state recognized. The program incorporates hands on building projects and is completely free to participants, as long as they quality for the income based requirements. Upon completion of the boot camp, students walk about with a nationally recognized certifications, and more often than not, a job. Smith said the program’s success rate runs over 90%, and if the students truly make the effort, CCI can have them employed within a matter of days.

Jason Hillyard, 34, is currently in week two of the construction boot camp. Born and raised in Denver, Hillyard spent the past five years caring for his father after he suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident. Despite his past work experience, he had a difficult time re-entering the job market because he hadn’t worked in over four years. And then he found CCI.

“I’ve always been good with my hands,” Hillyard explained. “Finding this, which not only offers the education part but also the help of getting a job was huge for me.”

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From a future job perspective, Hillyard feels hopeful. He explained that from the instructors to the classes to the application of knowledge, the CCI boot camp is proving to be a great fit.

Despite an incredibly busy and productive ship CCI is running, the future is looking strong for Smith and his staff. This August, CCI will be host to a satellite campus for a charter high school. Construction based learning will be included in all the curriculum for the projected 60 students. In addition, CCI plans to incorporate two more programs by 2017. The first, Building Pathways: College, will take after the preexisting Building Pathways program, but partner with community colleges instead. CCI will also be starting a residential carpentry apprenticeship program next year, which will take two years and provide students with in depth on the job learning and U.S. Department of Labor approved curriculum.

With their current programs and future additions, Smith admitted that CCI and its students stay very busy. Here at ULC, we are proud to partner and continuously work with an organization so strongly dedicated to education and community development. We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for CCI and all of its past and present students!

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