Luis Benitez

Luis Benitez, executive director of the Colorado Recreation Industry Office, at the CMC Outdoor Industry Workforce Summit. Photo Doug Stewart

By Carrie Click

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – According to an announcement today from the Colorado governor’s office, in 2017 outdoor recreation contributed $62 billion to the state’s economy and $35 billion to its gross domestic product – which is more than 10 percent. The impact of the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado has almost doubled since the state’s previous analysis in 2013. Colorado Mountain College plays a vital and growing role in educating future employees to fill those jobs, as participants in a recent summit heard.

To learn how to better connect the outdoor industry to the college and its ability to train and educate the industry’s workforce, co-hosts CMC, the Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, the Outdoor Industry Association and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado met with leaders from Colorado outdoor businesses, gear makers and agencies at the Outdoor Industry Workforce Summit on Oct. 18. The summit was held at the Morgridge Commons collaborative meeting facility in Glenwood Springs.

Outdoor-oriented educational programs such as ski area operations, wilderness emergency medical technician training, ski and snowboard business, sustainability studies, natural resource management and outdoor education are just a few of the college’s relevant offerings. In a spontaneous show of solidarity, summit attendees cheered when screens showed a CBS4 News clip from the previous day, showing CMC students in Leadville who had built, prepared and tested the state’s first terrain park to open in the 2019-20 season.

Outdoor Industry Summit panel discussion

Participating in a panel discussion at the Outdoor Industry Workforce Summit at CMC were, from left, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron; Ann Baker Easley, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado; Amy Roberts, Outdoor Industry Association; Jen McLaren, Smartwool; and Len Zanni, Big Agnes. Photo Doug Stewart

“We’ve been an early leader in these areas – for over 50 years,” said Rachel Pokrandt, CMC vice president and campus dean for Leadville and Chaffee County. Dozens of programs have direct applications to the outdoor industry, and countless more, such as business administration, marketing and e-commerce, and leadership and management, have crossover applications to careers at many outdoor companies and organizations. “And we have a unique opportunity to improve and evolve with the industry’s needs, with 11 campuses located in the heart of our state’s recreation economy,” she said.

Colorado Mountain College was recently named Top Adventure College by Elevation Outdoors Magazine for its numerous educational opportunities in outdoor recreation and natural resource management, and its proximity to many year-round adventure-based locations.

Matching students with jobs

At the gathering, co-founders, CEOs and executives from Aspen Skiing Company and Vail Resorts, Smartwool, Big Agnes, Fishpond, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, outfitters, elected officials and many more attended. They joined CMC administrators, faculty and students for a daylong interactive meeting to discover the best ways to prepare students for jobs, including teaching the softer skills needed by employers and expected by tourism and recreation clients.

“This is kind of a ‘Who’s Who’ in the outdoor industry, and CMC has been a leader in this arena for decades,” said Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, who helped moderate the event. “What this is about is pipelines and pathways.”

Listening to industry leaders

Last spring, Pokrandt and CMC President and CEO Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser began a systematic assessment to determine if CMC was providing the education that today’s outdoor industry employers expect and need from employees.

“We wanted to dig deeper,” said Pokrandt. To connect and reconnect the college with the industry, Cooper Mallozzi, dean of the college’s School of Tourism, Hospitality and Recreation, coordinated a series of listening sessions over the past several weeks at seven CMC campuses, meeting with local outdoor industry leaders and employees.

“We took what we found in those sessions, about preparing students for the outdoor workforce, and used it to guide topics in the breakout sessions at the summit,” Pokrandt said.

The Oct. 18 summit included a panel discussion about current workforce needs in the outdoor industry, as well as a presentation from Mallozzi about CMC’s outdoor programs. Pokrandt provided the group with findings from the previous listening sessions, and seven breakout groups discussed a variety of topics, from guide services to conservation. The college is producing a final summary and report of the day, and there are plans for future collaborative meetings as well as a follow-up summit involving other colleges and universities offering outdoor industry programs.