Voice: Abel Tapia

Abel Tapia is a former state senator from Pueblo.

“CF&I Steel once had 13,000 employees. That used to be a path towards prosperity. A lot of young Latinos just went and got their high school diplomas because that was a path to getting a job at the mill. It was a life to go for.”

That’s how I grew up but I chose not to do that. I wanted to go to college. And I did and oddly enough I came back and worked for CF&I Steel for 10 years as an inspector/engineer. It was a good career.

But in the ‘80s, it went from 13,000 employees to 1,300. These were manufacturing jobs. A guy is a steel boiler maker. In another profession, he might be an auto repairman. But as a steelmaker you were making $24 an hour. As a car repairman, you were making $4 an hour.

Abel Tapia

Abel Tapia

Pueblo took a really, really big hit in the ‘80s when the steel company downsized. In a
community of 100,000 when you are talking 13,000 jobs, that was a big hit. Everything was associated with those jobs. You could actually have a small firm like asphalt repair but if you worked for CF&I Steel as a contractor you could make a good living.

Then all of a sudden, it kind of went away. It took us here in Pueblo probably 20 years to recover from that. And the way we recovered, we got telecommunications jobs. They were $10 an hour service representatives for US West, AT&T. We replaced a lot of mill jobs with those types of jobs. But those were fairly non-skilled, high school diploma type jobs. If you could speak Spanish that would be great. You probably got a bonus. A job is a job. It’s great, but a steelworker making $24 an hour and triple overtime compared to a telecommunications operator, it’s day and night.

We’re about 50 percent Hispanic here. It did hit us hard, it hit us very hard. We don’t have the heavy industry kind of jobs that we once had with the mill. People up north used to say they’d hate to be in Pueblo because you got that big ugly steel mill. Well, the people that raised a family didn’t think it was big and ugly. They thought it was great and then it went away.

Now, the steel company is about 1,500 employees. It’s probably the third biggest employer in Pueblo.

The education gap continues. While I ran my engineering company, I also got on the school board for eight years. My whole mission was to encourage people to go to college. Now I’ve been gone 12 years from education and I’m getting back involved in it because I feel like we are almost hitting bottom. It’s not acceptable. We have to move forward

A lot of it is systemic. It wasn’t that you needed an education to have a good career. Back then, you could.

Now, it’s hard to get a high school education. The drop out rate from 9th grade to 12th grade is close to 50 percent. That’s absolutely terrible, every other kid won’t graduate. A lot of it is their dad didn’t graduate, so they aren’t graduating. Their mother didn’t graduate so they aren’t graduating. It needs to be changed, there has to be something to get them interested in making a better life for themselves.

I think the key is influence. We all look at who went before us. You say if they can do it, I can do it. When I was young there weren’t too many doctors, lawyers, engineers. There were schoolteachers.

Now we have a lot of doctors, lawyers, engineers. Those lawyers, doctors and engineers have got to get into the communities and say, ‘If I’m a doctor, you can be a doctor.’

The Youth and Family Academy in Pueblo is a charter school. They take dropout kids and try to get them an education. They graduated 36 kids last year. One was a girl who was 20. She has three kids. She’s unmarried. But now she wants to go to college.

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