A revolutionary facility helps entrepreneurs educate their workers and transform their companies into fast-growth businesses. Ultimately it -- and programs like it -- could help remake the economy

Devin Harwell, 34, is a quiet, unassuming, seemingly dispassionate man whose voice -- both in evenness and timbre -- brings Jimmy Stewart to mind. But when he describes what an innovative education program did for his 70-employee manufacturing company, in the small Denver suburb of Henderson, Colo., Harwell gets positively fluttery. "I gotta tell you, I didn't know how I was going to continue to get people who could do what I needed them to do," he says, bouncing a little in his chair as he describes Denver Architectural Precast Inc., a company he built up and then sold last June for a sum that was considerably more than what he had paid for it in 1997. "If it hadn't been for these people, this place, we couldn't have grown as a company."

"This place" is the Higher Education and Advanced Technology (HEAT) Center, a radical project intended to transform Colorado's old-economy workers into 21st-century professionals who can fuel the state's burgeoning technology sector. More than 3,000 college students and employees of area companies are being trained in HEAT's labs and classrooms, located on the former Lowry Air Force Base, just outside Denver. But HEAT's energy is felt hundreds of miles away, even in Colorado's smallest and most remote towns. There, technical neophytes will eventually master everything from Microsoft Word to fine-instrument measurement through courses delivered over high-bandwidth lines into public buildings. That outreach gives HEAT the outsize potential to help lift Colorado's economy off the puny shoulders of ailing industries and reposition it on the strong back of the digital world.

"Fifteen years ago, Colorado's livelihood was driven by our natural-resources economy," says Governor Bill Owens. "Our fate rested on the success of mining, agriculture, and oil and gas. In the mid 1980s, those industries went through very difficult times." Agriculture lost nearly half of its 10,000 workers from 1995 to 1999. Mining, once a major industry, employed slightly fewer than 15,000 Coloradoans in 1995, and even that small pool declined to 13,100 by 1999. And while the manufacturing and construction sectors have grown, the state lacks the engineers and other skilled workers to staff them adequately. Similarly, jobs are going begging up and down the state's "convergence corridor," a string of cities along Interstate 25 that are rife with telecommunications and high-tech manufacturing companies. And those high-tech labor woes persist despite the fact that Colorado has the nation's highest concentration of technology workers: they constitute 84 out of every 1,000 private-sector employees.

HEAT is a life preserver for small-business owners who aren't even treading water in the rising technology tide.

Meanwhile, Colorado's unemployed and underemployed are moldering away in small towns that are "dying on the vine," says Rick Mann, who runs Lucent Technologies' training laboratory at HEAT. In those more remote places, most people lack the skills that would admit them to good-paying jobs. Since they also lack the means to acquire those skills, their prospects don't look bright. For those residents, HEAT may be a lifesaver: with the help of corporations and academic institutions, it is making technology training available throughout the state.

HEAT is also a life preserver for small-business owners who aren't even treading water in the rising technology tide. Consider Harwell's company, which, prior to its sale, operated for 11 years as Denver Architectural Precast Inc. The company, which Harwell refers to as Precast, made a limestone-like concrete that's used by contractors on building surfaces. Eighty percent of Harwell's 70 workers spoke little or no English; managers spoke almost no Spanish. In the past, workers followed simple manufacturing instructions printed on paper and in Spanish, but the spoken-language barrier prevented them from asking technical questions or suggesting process improvements. Product quality was iffy: Harwell's quality inspectors routinely rejected 10% of the pieces the company produced. In a record bad year, 15 workers were injured by hand tools and other equipment. And Harwell was unable to turn to the Web, whose information could have helped him make his company safer and more profitable. Precast's aging computer system could handle accounting and scheduling, but it lacked e-mail and Web-hosting capabilities and Internet access. "We just didn't have the time, the money, or the know-how to put new computers in there," he says.

In 1997, Harwell sought help from HEAT's Training Services Division, which provides the kind of IT consulting and customized training that's usually available only to big companies. HEAT helped him round up state grants with which he could invest in computer equipment and pay for education and advice from HEAT. The Center provided him with consulting services and training videos, both of which, he says, made a major difference: the company's error rates declined, and the plant became a safer place to work. In a 1999 safety ranking of 215 companies in its industry, Precast ranked 15th. The cost to Harwell? Not a dime -- thanks to the grants that HEAT helped him find. "HEAT is a great deal," he says, smiling.

As well he might. When Harwell purchased Precast, it had revenues of $2 million. With HEAT's help, he pumped up business substantially. During his three years of ownership, he nearly tripled the staff, from 25 to 70 employees, and he quadrupled revenues. When he sold Precast last June to Denver-based Rocky Mountain Prestress -- one of three suitors that courted the company -- the business was on track to take in $8.5 million. "I've already talked to HEAT about helping me on the next company I buy," says Harwell.

HEAT is also a great deal for students, who pay the standard tuition at Colorado's community colleges -- $57.75 per credit to attend a class in person and $115 online. And for 15 employees taking a single HEAT course, companies pay only $1,000 to $1,500.

Curmudgeonly Colorado taxpayers could argue that HEAT is too good a deal. Investment in the Center by the state and federal governments, as well as by companies, has surpassed $100 million, and the campus is only 60% complete. The benefits to the state as a whole, meanwhile, have yet to be substantiated. "At the moment, we don't have a payback," confesses Ed Tauer, a HEAT supporter and city councilman in Aurora, where the Center is located. "We're still very much in the investment stage. And this is a 10-year investment."

For a high-tech ground zero, the HEAT Center isn't much to look at. The campus consists of 18 unobtrusive buildings constructed on blasted heath. But inside, the Center thrums with activity. Employees from half a dozen large technology companies, along with students from seven community colleges and four universities, roam hallways that glitter with steel, glass, and chrome. Trainees may take a seat in one of the plain, beige-brick classrooms where instructors wax eloquent on subjects ranging from dental hygiene to radiology to virtual reality. Or they may go into hands-on mode by using the Center's state-of-the-art computers, servers, and manufacturing equipment. For digital creatives, a studio worthy of George Lucas is stocked with the latest film, video, and production equipment.

HEAT was the brainchild of Don Goodwin and Mary Ann Roe, researchers who have long shared a vision for improving technical education in this country. In 1993 the two set out to study training programs in Singapore, Japan, and Germany, all of which, they believed, did a superior job of aligning adult-education programs with the needs of business. "U.S. culture tends to divide people into 'blue collar' and 'white collar' professionals," says Roe, pointing out what she considers a philosophical misstep. As a result technical education traditionally targets blue-collar workers and takes place in community colleges. In the eyes of corporate America -- and America in general -- those workers are less valuable than their white-collar counterparts.

Roe insists that that distinction has become less meaningful in the current economy, in which everyone from chief information officer to auto mechanic requires a broader, deeper technical education than ever before and in which skills become obsolete almost as soon as they've been acquired. Consequently, today's workers must be trained and retrained throughout their professional lives. "This is the first time in history in which we need knowledge workers who understand both the reason for and the operation of applied technology," says Roe. "They do not, and cannot, wear either white or blue collars. They work with their heads and their hands. I like to call them 'gold collar' workers."

In countries that value such employees, Roe and Goodwin found, educational and professional institutions worked with businesses to supply the skilled workforces they needed. And the two educators wanted to try something similar in this country. The high-tech training center they envisioned would save taxpayers money, because publicly funded colleges would no longer have to build their own labs or be responsible for keeping equipment up-to-date. It would also improve technical education, because companies could tell college instructors and administrators exactly what skills they were looking for in workers. Most important, it would boost the economy of whatever state it graced by providing an attractive workforce with which to lure outside companies, helping local businesses grow, and -- through distance learning -- bringing new opportunities to fading locales.

"I compare bringing high-speed technology to rural America to bringing electricity to rural America," says Gary K. Lancaster.

Roe and Goodwin required four things to make their experiment work: supportive political leadership; a willing technology industry; a clean, well-lighted place; and an open-minded community-college and university system. In 1994, Governor Roy Romer and the state legislature approved a master plan that Goodwin had drawn up in just 60 days. Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems signed up, clearing a path for other technology companies. And the closure of Lowry Air Force Base opened up large tracts of land and numerous buildings to civilian use.

The academic institutions proved the toughest nuts to crack. "The community-college presidents ate us alive. They accused us of trying to steal their programs," says Goodwin, who left the Center in August 1999 to create a similar organization for the South Orange County Community College District, in California, on the closed Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

As Goodwin sees it, the college administrators were in denial over the failure of their own training initiatives. One community college offered an electronics program with no courses in microprocessor technology, despite the presence of an Intel facility nearby. "The private sector wouldn't hire students from that program, and word got around that students shouldn't go to school there," he says.

Goodwin and Roe countered the resistance by arranging conversations between college presidents and the businesspeople who they hope will hire their graduates. Academic ears listened as the private sector described its needs, and academic eyes began to open.

But even after everyone was on board, considerable assembly was still required. "At the beginning I was very concerned about the notion of coordinating many institutions," says Jo Roth, vice-president of student, faculty, and staff services at the Community College of Aurora. "It involved coordinating computer systems, registration, admissions, financial aid, and advising. But everyone was willing to be flexible, and we all made it happen."

Perhaps the most ambitious piece of Roe and Goodwin's vision -- a distance-learning program that aims to revitalize Colorado's most ailing towns -- is becoming a reality, thanks to HEAT's Convergent Technologies Innovations Laboratory, or CTIL. Funded with $11 million from Lucent and $9 million from the state, CTIL is a national showcase for data-networking, Internet, and video-communications technologies that resides deep in the heart of HEAT's campus. Yet, because of it, learning is happening in distant Julesburg, a town of 1,300 souls near the Nebraska border, a three-hour drive from the Center.

Agriculture's declining fortunes have taken their toll on Julesburg, whose residents have for generations earned their livelihood raising wheat, beef cattle, alfalfa, corn, and sugar beets. And although the construction of a prison nearby created some new, albeit unglamorous, jobs, "young people don't really like to stay here," says Murl Abts, who runs a combination pharmacy and gift-and-flower shop in town.

But Julesburg -- and towns like it -- are now poised to become HEAT outposts. CTIL has taken over a century-old building in Julesburg -- a onetime national bank turned clothing store turned beauty parlor. The Center is transforming the building into the Sedgwick County Rural Technology Academy, using funds provided by Lucent and the state. When the renovation is complete and fiber-optic wiring is installed, local students will be able to take distance-learning courses in the former bank.

A handful of local high school students offer residents a preview of what to expect. Having recently traveled to the HEAT campus for courses in Web development, the students are now back in Julesburg and building a 3-D version of their hometown online. Soon visitors from around the world will be able to take a mouse-driven tour of Julesburg's streets, browse its antiques and clothing stores, and buy from its merchants, wielding credit cards over secure Web sites.

"I compare bringing high-speed technology to rural America to bringing electricity to rural America," says Gary K. Lancaster, chairman of the Sedgwick County Technology Board, which is helping to oversee development of the Rural Technology Academy. He expects that townspeople will be able to hatch home-based businesses after high-speed Internet lines have been installed. And the town hopes to attract small businesses with its newly trained high-tech labor pool and its high-quality, affordable education program.

In addition to providing basic computer skills, the Rural Technology Academy will foster continuing education for professionals in this remote location. For example, Lancaster envisions being able to invite local veterinarians to the Academy to watch Internet broadcasts of surgeries performed at Colorado State University's Veterinary College. "Being a spoke on HEAT's hub will save taxpayer dollars, since we won't have to equip the schools with labs," says resident Abts. "Everyone in town thinks this is a great thing."

The wiring of Julesburg is just the opening move in a grand strategy that should ultimately encompass the entire state. Back at the HEAT Center, Lucent's Mann -- a fast-talking fellow who plays military board games for relaxation -- explains how CTIL will wire towns in every county in the state with high-speed cable, linking them to HEAT and to one another. "We want to take what we've learned at HEAT and push it into businesses, schools, and towns all over the state," says Mann, who projects that 73 towns will be wired by June 2002, serving as "endpoints" that will connect multiple other towns.

Although such educational partnerships may ultimately prove lucrative for corporate participants, HEAT itself needs to find a way to make money. Not that the organization has spent much. It now employs just 60 people, and most of its functions are outsourced.

Nonetheless, HEAT still has to wean itself from state funds. "The governor would prefer to see private funding take over the bulk of the expenditure," says Alan Philp, special assistant to the governor. "His feeling is that since the private sector reaps the benefits, they should really be paying for it." The plan calls for HEAT to be self-supporting and profitable by 2008; the state and Lucent have agreed to fund it until then.

In addition to Lucent and Cisco, a number of private-sector players have come to the organization's aid. Such corporations as U.S. West, PictureTel, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed-Martin, and Raytheon are contributing equipment. And some smaller companies have donated equipment and business expertise. To keep the support faucet running, HEAT will have to continue to market itself to the business world. Despite its early success, that won't be easy. And since precious little money has been earmarked for marketing, HEAT remains little known, even in Colorado. "Marketing and sales is a new ball game for higher education," says Roe.

HEAT must also market itself to students, which means both prettifying itself and offering competitive amenities. The barren campus is undergoing extensive renovations, and by 2004 it should be verdant with trees, shrubs, and grass, and blooming with flowers. Classroom and housing space -- including dormitories -- is being expanded to accommodate up to 10,000 students. One large building may be transformed into a hotel and conference center.

The 1,705 acres of Lowry Air Force Base that's not serving HEAT's academic mission is being developed by the state into a suburban dream, with housing for 3,200 families -- all of it, naturally, wired with high-bandwidth fiber. (According to former HEAT marketer Sally Covington, the first batch of those house lots sold out immediately.) There will be shopping malls and an outdoor amphitheater where the Denver Symphony will play. And plans on the drawing board call for the expansion of a golf course.

By the time those plans come to fruition, Governor Owens predicts, Colorado will have become one of the nation's leading technology centers. "High tech has already given Colorado one of the most diverse economies in the nation," he says. "My goal is to build on this success and expand prosperity to all corners of the state by improving the technology infrastructure and education."

Such goals -- whether expressed by the governor or by organizations like HEAT -- are just what the state's residents want to see realized. "It will be great when younger people can learn the skills they need right here," says Julesburg's Abts, his voice wistful. "Maybe they will be more tempted to stay in the community than to move away to the cities and never come back."

Bronwyn Fryer is a senior editor at The Harvard Business Review. For more information on the HEAT Center, visit www.heat-center.org.

Around The Nation ...

You don't have to live in Colorado to take advantage of innovative workforce-development programs. Here are snapshots of three other states' efforts.

The Learning Center at Miami Valley Research Park, Dayton, Ohio: Launched in October 2000, the center is run by Sinclair Community College with input from three other Dayton-area schools. Its mission: meeting local companies' demand for new-technology workers and improving their existing employees' skills. Courses range from Java programming to intranet design. Tuition runs from $239 for a two-day Microsoft Access class to nearly $4,000 for a 10-week Webmaster certification program. For information, visit http://it.sinclair.edu/.

The Advanced Technology and Educational Park, Tustin, Calif.: Automotive design. Telemedicine. Digital video. Those are among the programs that the South Orange County Community College District plans to offer at a former air base south of Los Angeles, starting later this year. Don Goodwin, who oversaw Colorado's HEAT Center development and now heads the Tustin effort, says other schools will contribute training. The Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, will train people interested in dreaming up new vehicles for companies like Mazda, Ford, and Jaguar, which all have southern California design facilities. Medicine for Humanity, a nonprofit oncologists' group based in San Juan Capistrano, will train local medical personnel to remotely diagnose and treat cancer patients. For more information, visit www.socccd.cc.ca.us.

The Michigan Technology Education Centers (T-TECS): The state, its community colleges, major employers, and labor unions have joined forces to build 18 technology training centers statewide. Each focuses on the needs of the surrounding community. One Detroit-area M-TEC will train former autoworkers for new high-tech jobs. Seven M-TECs have already opened; the rest are scheduled to debut by late 2002. Visit www.michigan.org for more details. --Anne Stuart

Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.