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Connecting classrooms to career prospects a boon for Aims Community College Ft. Lupton

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By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — Brenda Rask, dean of the Aims Community College Fort Lupton campus, knows firsthand the value of career and technical education, commonly known as CTE. 

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After all, the dean’s daughter, Sydnie Rask, a 2008 graduate of Fort Lupton High School, was a product of a CTE welding program at the Aims main campus in Greeley. Now she’s the owner of her own welding company, LLR, or Little Lady Rask Welding.

And that makes Mama Rask more than just a spokeswoman for the virtues of career training, but rather living proof that the system works.

“She took the welding program … and then went to work for General Air, a service company for welding, and did that for about a year before starting as a welder’s assistant,” Brenda Rask said. “Now, another year later, she has her own welding company, her own business, her own name, her own truck and her own welding machines.

“And she makes more than I do,” she added.

 

Filling a need

Welding is just one of several new classes added to the Fort Lupton Campus’ curriculum since the ribbon was cut last August on the new $10 million Platte Building, which boasts more than $1 million in training equipment, including a welding lab outfitted in part by a considerable industry donation.

The spate of new programs is believed to be the driving force behind a sharp increase in summer enrollment and a similarly large anticipated increase in the fall, Rask said.

Like the other new programs, many of which are focused on the oil and gas and agriculture industries, Rask said the welding program was a response to industry demand and workforce needs.

“Leed Fabrication (of Brighton) made a sizeable donation of $100,000 for our welding program because they say there’s a shortage of qualified welders to go into the industry,” Rask said. “For the last 10 years, the communities and the school districts we’ve worked most closely with have been asking for welding.”

Similarly, the oil and gas program, part of Aims’ applied and environmental technologies, comes years into a veritable energy exploration boom in the county that has left companies clamoring to find help.

“We had business and industry representatives coming to us saying ‘We don’t have enough people,’” Rask said. 

Rask said the O&G program was also the beneficiary of good timing: Around the same time Rask and a handful of other locals looked into trying to get an oil and gas museum in Fort Lupton, they came across a federal grant aimed to help schools fund oil and gas programs and training.

Much of the cost of training equipment not covered by the federal grant was absorbed by industry donations, Rask added.

 

One hand
washes the other

Of the 15 schools in the Colorado Community College System (16, if you count Colorado Community Colleges Online), only Aims and one other, Colorado Mountain College, have their own governing board. As such, those two schools are considered local district community colleges, and therefore receive not only a share of property taxes within their “service area,” but also a portion of oil and gas severance taxes.

Rask said that arrangement allows Aims total fiscal solvency, something most other schools can only dream of. And, she added, there’s no denying that the school’s solvency is owed in large part to the oil and gas industry.

“(Severance taxes) are a pretty big, large sum of money … that help Aims to operate with no debt whatsoever,” Rask said. “That makes us one of the few educational institutions in the state to operate without debt, and that has certainly helped Weld County.

“Then again, Weld County has been much more welcoming to oil and gas than some other counties have,” she added.

Both Aims and the overall county’s friendly working relationship with the oil and gas industry is no secret — truck traffic in Fort Lupton is testament of the hustle and bustle oil and gas brings to the largest county in the state, and Weld’s 6 percent employment increase in 2013 was more than 4 percent better than the nationwide standard.

Aims College itself even has dealings with the industry, and leases land to a local energy interest. As a result, to the west of the small Fort Lupton campus stands three large gas tanks dotting the otherwise flat terrain — fairly appropriate décor considering the training going on just a few hundred feet away.

 

Skills that pay the bills

Aims Oil and Gas Technology program director Bruce Beardsley said he doesn’t have much oil and gas experience, but the industry partners who help shape the program’s curriculum certainly do.

“We put this program together under (the direction of our advisory board), which is made up of nine or 10 industry partners in the area,” Beardsley said.

Beardsley said the program aims to provide students with the tools they need for entry-level oil and gas jobs — skills like electricity, pneumatics, hydraulics, mechanics and controls.

“These are basic skills that they can take to many entry-level jobs in the oil and gas industry,” he said. “And those jobs pay real nice.”

Beardsley said what makes the programs most effective is Aims’ commitment to finding the best instructors, as well as bringing in industry speakers who provide inside information. But Weston McCary, instructor in agriculture and engineering technology at Fort Lupton, said the real key is the amenities afforded by the Platte Building labs.

“Having been to two universities myself, for grad and undergrad, I can tell you that there’s not much out there that is hands-on,” said McCary, who added that the same goes for most vocational schools in Colorado. “It’s mostly theoretical stuff at engineering schools. 

“So the fact that you can walk in here and have this (training equipment) makes a huge difference,” he added. “The fact that (students) can get hands on working with the dials — it’s very tactile, it’s huge … and the students love it.”

One student, Flower Leos, of Gilcrest, agreed.

“Here we have our own lab … where I can get my hands on stuff. It’s totally interactive,” she said. “And I’m an interactive learner. I like to get my hands on things and see how they work, and I really love that Aims offers that chance.

“I can go to a four-year school and get the same education, but I love the experience aspect here,” Leos added. 

 

“A different perspective”

Opportunity is what led Leos to take part in the new oil and gas program at Aims’ Fort Lupton Campus. What students do with the training afterward, she said, is all a matter of perspective.

“There’s just so many opportunities in oil and gas, and I think a lot of people have this misconception that (the industry’s) all about drilling and manual labor,” she said. “But I think Aims has a different perspective, and they know there’s so much more to drilling and the oil industry overall.”

Consequently, Leos wants to get into petroleum engineering, where she would like to “be setting up my own field.

“Instead of doing the dirty work, I’d be running things, helping things flow and making sure all the pneumatics are running smoothly,” she added. “I like how there’s more options now, especially on the technical side (which) Aims is definitely promoting. That’s going to be the future of oil and gas.”

The future starts, Leos said, with proper training, something she feels she’s getting at Aims. 

“This program is really focused on oil and gas so I don’t have to take all those other classes,” Leos said. “It’s centered around what I want to do.”

Rick Rice, 17, of Greeley, is in his third semester at Aims after his family convinced him to go into technical training. And Rice said he was receptive to the idea, especially after seeing how his father, after leaving trucking to join the oil and gas industry, advanced in his own career. Just a youngster himself, Rice said he sees the industry as a way for him to be successful sooner than later.

“I know the money’s good because my father started out seven or eight years ago and moved up really, really fast,” Rice said. “Before, he was making good money, but when he got into the oil field, it was no comparison.”

After graduating, Rice said he’d like to start off slow by working on a service rig that performs repairs on drilling rigs. 

“I’d like to learn the blue-collar work … for a year or two and then move up from there, because I don’t want to just jump into anything,” he said.

As far as Beardsley is concerned, the world is an oyster for Aims’ CTE students.

“Students like the classes,” he said. “They’re coming, they’re finishing, and they’re being hired.”

 

Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson can be reached at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.