A Tale of Land, Wind, and Opportunity: How Colorado's Outdoors Helps Create Jobs

Installing PV panels on the roof at the Research Support Facility, RSF
Installing PV panels on the roof at the Research Support Facility, RSF Dennis Schroeder / NREL
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Colorado’s key industries exist for the same reasons Coloradans choose to settle here. From its craggy peaks to its wide-open plains, Colorado’s incredibly diverse 67 million acres are irresistible to adventurers and innovators. In that second category are industry leaders to whom the state’s natural resources are not only aesthetically attractive but economically beneficial.

Thanks to its central geography and wide array of environs, Colorado is well suited to a number of key industries and business sectors, and it shows. In 2015, Colorado was ranked No. 2 on NerdWallet’s list of most entrepreneurial states, and Forbes ranked Denver No. 3 on its list of easiest cities in which to find a job.

Check out some of the top-employing industries now on the rise.

Advanced Manufacturing

Wind power is big on Colorado plains.
Wind power is big on Colorado plains. National Wind Institute

Colorado’s central location—smack-dab in the middle of the country—means its exports are easily accessible across the globe. Huge swaths of open land and low energy costs allow companies to use innovative technology to improve their processes and products. Natural resources, like the constant wind on the plains, have allowed companies like Vestas to make advancements in wind turbine technology. In 2015, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industryemployed over 7,000 people in Colorado, and advancing developments mean the number of jobs is on the rise.

Aerospace

Students at UC-Boulder’s School of Aerospace Engineering Sciences have a good chance of finding work in state after graduation.
Students at UC-Boulder’s School of Aerospace Engineering Sciences have a good chance of finding work in state after graduation. Zach Dischner

Eight of the U.S.’s top aerospace contractors have significant operations in the state, including Ball, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. So it’s no surprise that some of the best-known NASA projects, like the Hubble Space Telescope, have Colorado roots, too. The wide-open west is an ideal location for companies to develop aerospace technologies, and it doesn’t hurt that Colorado is centrally located—or that its capital city is nearly 5,300 feet above sea level. There are more than 400 aerospace firms that have set up shop in Colorado.

Electronics

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden teaches students engineering and applied science with a “special expertise in the development and stewardship of the Earth's natural resources.”
The Colorado School of Mines in Golden teaches students engineering and applied science with a “special expertise in the development and stewardship of the Earth's natural resources.” SparkFun Electronics

Strategically located on the 105th Meridian—equidistant from Frankfurt, Germany, and Tokyo, Japan—Denver is perfectly suited to serve the growing global technology market. Colorado has long been home to heavy hitters like Oracle and IBM, and its universities’ phenomenal technology programs. Because of these nationally-ranked programs, the number of homegrown tech talent is continually growing. Nearly 30,000 Coloradans are employed by the electronics industry, and according to numbers from WiserTrade in 2014, electronics exports grew by over 55 percent between 2009 and 2013.

Energy and Natural Resources

At ESIF, a division of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, hydrogen fuel cell technology for cars is under development.
At ESIF, a division of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, hydrogen fuel cell technology for cars is under development. Western Area Power

Colorado attracts visitors and residents with this often-cited forecast: over 300 days of sunshine annually. That’s great for outdoor enthusiasts, but it also means the state is prime real estate for cultivating energy and natural resources. The plains east of the Rockies are rich with oil and natural gas, but many of the 6,000 energy firms in the state are committed to researching alternative energy sources, too. In fact, Colorado ranked No. 4 on the U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index in 2014, and it’s in the top 10 for per capita solar power generation. These energy innovations require lots of brainpower, too, which is why energy (both private enterprise and government funded programs, like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden) employs nearly 150,000, according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Food and Agriculture

Colorado is home to productive and innovative agriculture industry.
Colorado is home to productive and innovative agriculture industry. M. Kunz

The American West is alive and well in Colorado. With millions of acres of farms and ranches, the Centennial State exports billions of dollars’ worth of food, beer, and wine each year. The beer and wine industries are bolstered by perfect growing conditions in Colorado’s Western Slope region for finicky crops like hops and grapes. As a result, according to the Brewers’ Association, Colorado’s 280-plus craft breweries produce over 1.75 million barrels of craft beer annually.

Consumers have reason to feel good about buying Colorado-grown products as well—more agricultural acres arecertified organic in Colorado than in any other state. (The state’s happy dairy cows, who thrive on sunshine and wide-ranging pasture acreage, produce more milk per cow than almost any other state.)

Tourism and Outdoor Recreation

There’s a little skiing that goes on there, too, you may have heard.
There’s a little skiing that goes on there, too, you may have heard. Zach Dischner

It’s no surprise that Colorado attracts top numbers for overnight ski visitors at its 30 ski areas, but there’s so much more to outdoor recreation here than skiing and snowboarding. Tourists flock to the Rockies each summer, where they hire guides to take them rafting, mountain biking, and climbing. But it’s not tourists alone doing all this. Ninety percent of Coloradans participate in some outdoor activity or another each year.

This means outdoor manufacturing companies, like sleeping bag and pad maker Big Agnes in Steamboat Springs, have the perfect testing ground for their products. Complex innovations in outdoor product technology mean skilled workers are in high demand to keep up with the growing demand for lightweight tents, durable jackets, and other essential gear. According to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the industry employs nearly 180,000 workers to show Coloradans (and their visitors) the best way to experience the state.

Originally written for Choose Colorado.

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