Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Can Apprenticeships Pave the Way to a Better Economic Future?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 26, 2017 8 min read
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Colorado leaders are painfully aware that they need to find skilled workers to fill thousands of jobs. And they’re betting big on their new secret weapon: an apprenticeship program for high school students.

This fall, 116 teenagers from four districts have fanned out to 40 companies in Colorado in the inaugural year of the state’s apprenticeship program. Three days a week, the junior and senior students are at school, and two days a week, they’re earning minimum wage or more while they learn the ins and outs of finance, information technology, business operations, or advanced manufacturing.

Colorado has a grand vision for the outcome of this project: By 2026, 20,000 apprentices from all across the state will have finished high school with transferable college credit, at least one postsecondary credential, three years of work experience, and in most cases, an associate degree.

The program fits into an expanding national conversation about how schools can do a better job with the career side of the well-known mantra “college- and career-readiness.” A changing economy demands a workforce with sophisticated technical skills, and at least some training or education after high school.

Even with low national unemployment, many jobs are going unfilled as companies search for the talent with the skills they need. Searching for answers, policymakers are encouraging schools to use internships, work-based learning, and apprenticeships to expose young people to career ideas and build work experience. President Donald Trump is likewise urging high schools to offer apprenticeships.

In Colorado, the aim is to arm students with general work skills like good communication and time management, which can pay off in a wide variety of jobs, and industry-specific skills like software development or accounting. Each apprenticeship is based on a curriculum developed jointly by business, colleges, and K-12 schools.

The goal is to better position students to save time and money in college and compete for jobs and to supply a bigger pool of skilled workers for Colorado companies.

“We literally have tens of thousands of jobs every week that go unfilled,” said Ellen Golombek, the executive director of Colorado’s labor and employment department, which helped shape the apprenticeship program. “We’re taking a look at the entire work-based-learning spectrum to train, retrain, and ‘upskill’ the workforce to meet our current and projected needs.”

Colorado officials are also hoping to not-so- subtly make another point: Apprenticeships aren’t just for young people aspiring to traditional trade jobs like plumbing or electrical work.

Byoncé Reyna illustrates that point. The Denver 16-year-old hopes to be an elementary school teacher. But she’s over-the-top excited about her apprenticeship at an insurance company. Since early August, she’s been working two days a week at Pinnacol Assurance, which provides worker-compensation policies.

Byoncé Reyna, a student at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, jokes with Katie Vicuna during her internship at Pinnacol Assurance. Vicuna, an agency relations coordinator at Pinnacol, is Byoncé’s mentor.

“Insurance is not exactly what I want to do in my life, but knowing how to take on tasks, how to work and thrive in a business environment, will help me in whatever I do,” she said.

Her apprenticeship has brought a bachelor’s degree within her reach, the 11th grader said.

“Coming from a single-parent household, college is really a stressful topic,” said Byoncé, whose mother works at an auto-financing company.

“With all the debt, it seemed like a crazy idea. But now that I can get halfway through college with no debt and a paid position, it’s mind-blowing. It’s more than I could ask for at such a young age.”

In her first few weeks at Pinnacol, Byoncé started with workplace skills, such as learning the Microsoft Office suite of computer tools, and, as she puts it, “how to maintain this young-professional persona and make sure people know we mean business.”

Now, under the watchful eye of a Pinnacol adviser, she’s rotating through underwriting, claims adjustment, and other departments. Over the next three years, Byoncé, a junior, will try her hand at various posts, spending more time at work, and less on her high school campus, as she gets closer to graduation.

By her third year, she’ll be taking community college classes and working three or four days a week at Pinnacol, building expertise in one specific area of the company.

Twenty-two other apprentices are working at Pinnacol, too. They all learn the 26 workplace competencies Colorado has built into the program, such as being a self-starter, teamwork, and thinking logically. But beyond that, they will find unique niches in the company as they rotate through various departments.

Some might gravitate toward working with clients over the phone, and others might take a shine to underwriting. Still others might choose to build their technology skills by developing content for Pinnacol’s website, said Mark Tapy, who is overseeing the company’s apprenticeship program.

Wading into the program is no small matter for companies. Pinnacol has agreed to pay 23 apprentices $9.60 per hour for two full days a week and as much as $12 or $15 per hour, three days a week, as they progress through the program.

Marco Knight, a junior at High Tech Early College in Denver, shadows workers during his paid apprenticeship program at Pinnacol Assurance, a local insurance company.

Participating companies also pay $2,000 to $5,000 per apprentice for their courses at community colleges and other training providers.

There’s also the time and effort of writing the curriculum, which lays out specific weekly goals, and supervising teenagers as they learn. Pinnacol’s is a blend of general workplace competencies agreed upon by business, K-12, and higher education, and an insurance-specific course it developed with The Institutes, an organization that confers credentials for the insurance industry.

The way Pinnacol sees it, the effort is worth the payoff. The company and the industry nationwide anticipate a big wave of retirements in the coming decade, Tapy said, so Pinnacol can’t just wait around to see what happens.

“We’re trying to create a new talent-acquisition strategy for our organization, and our industry, to ensure that we retain some of the institutional knowledge we’ve had,” he said.

These kinds of economic shifts were on the minds of leaders in Colorado’s business and education sectors as they started to explore the apprenticeship idea last year. Led by Gov. John Hickenlooper, they organized a trip to Switzerland, where 40 percent of companies offer apprenticeships in more than 200 professions. About 70 percent of Swiss students participate in the world-renowned program.

They learned that companies make a net profit on their apprenticeship investments. Over three years, a Swiss economics professor told the delegation, companies spend $86,000 on average on each apprentice but get contributions valued at $95,000.

Research shows that Swiss students who take part in apprenticeships have lower unemployment and higher earnings than peers who stick to the exclusively academic track. Apprentices don’t end up stuck with their early job choices, either; Swiss research shows that later occupational changes are common.

With the Swiss system as a model, Colorado began planning its program as a way to keep students in the school pipeline, set them up for good jobs, and serve industry’s need for a skilled workforce. It decided to put businesses in the driver’s seat, using their needs as a starting point.

“If they’re not at the table, if they can’t tell us what they need, we’re flying blind” in trying to provide it, said Golombek, the state labor and employment director.

The state chose four focus areas for the apprenticeship program—finance, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and business operations—based on which businesses expressed interest in being part of the new system, she said. But they also had to be areas with high growth potential in Colorado’s economy.

A nonprofit organization, CareerWise Colorado, coordinates the many moving parts of the system. The organization convenes conversations with business and education to define apprenticeship competencies and figure out how to monitor and assess students’ progress.

It works with K-12 schools to infuse career exploration and specific career skills into coursework.

And it’s working with the state’s two- and four-year colleges to create articulation agreements that guarantee that students can transfer the credits they earn in the program.

“This requires new thinking, new models, and new partnerships, but this is a new economy,” said Kim Hunter Reed, the executive director of Colorado’s department of higher education.

The project has pushed education and business into a new, positive kind of relationship, said Gretchen Morgan, CareerWise Colorado’s president.

“In the United States, it’s hard for business and schools to have a practical way to be connected to each other to ensure that schools know enough about changing industry to be responsive,” she said. “When they share responsibility for apprentices, they have this very practical way to be in touch about the relevant competencies.”

Colorado has set ambitious goals for its initiative, and national experts are watching to see how it unfolds. One such expert sees big challenges ahead.

“The biggest challenge is getting employers to seriously play in this game,” said Robert B. Schwartz, who leads the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a group of states that work on career-readiness policies with Harvard University and Jobs for the Future.

In the United States, employers tend to “wait around to see what shows up on their doorstep,” while Swiss companies “get in at the front end” and help shape the education system so it produces the talent pool they need, said Schwartz, who has studied the Swiss apprenticeship system.

Creating a nationwide Swiss-style apprenticeship system would require that big shift in thinking from U.S. companies, he said.

And it would demand a radical restructuring of high schools that Schwartz said he doubts most schools would embrace: a “lower secondary” and “upper secondary” model, in which students spend the first two years on academics and career readiness, and the second evenly divided between work and study.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2017 edition of Education Week as Colorado Goes All In on Apprentices

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