Colorado’s workforce of the future

State pushes apprenticeships as alternative pathway to middle class


Since 2009, the Colorado legislature has been enacting a series of workforce and education bills designed to increase career readiness and opportunities for students, culminating in the 2015 Colorado Ready to Work Package consisting of eight bills. This partners with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Colorado Blueprint — a policy plan to move Colorado toward economic vitality with a mission to “educate and train the workforce of the future” as one of its several goals.

On the education side, the statewide concurrent enrollment program was part of legislation passed in 2009, which encourages students to take higher education courses, including career and technical classes, while still enrolled in high school. It also allows for qualifying students to take a fifth year of publicly funded high school while completing community college coursework. And 2015 saw the passing of several bills focused on apprenticeship and internship programs and incentives for companies to train students in a variety of industry sectors across the state as part of concurrent enrollment.

“We have downplayed anything other than a four year education for so many years,” says Colorado Senate assistant minority leader Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) who sponsored four of the eight 2015 workforce bills. “Really what all this is about is to get kids and parents to understand that if you don’t want to go to college it’s OK. Career and technical education provide good jobs but they require you to stay in high school and gain knowledge and skill.”

And Sen. Heath would know. In the ’80s, he was both the national and international president of the billion-dollar manufacturing corporation Johns Mansville, managing employees all over the world, including plants in Germany, where he came across the apprenticeship model for the first time.

“We had apprentice and internship programs in every plant around the world except in this country. The irony is, a fiberglass plant in Germany and a fiberglass plant in Ohio would be doing the exact same thing [but with] 40 apprentices in Germany and none here,” Sen. Heath says. “I just became convinced that rather than creating an either/or [situation] — either a four-year college degree or a good technical education — we said all or nothing: If you don’t go to college you’re basically a failure.”

As part of the German vocational training system, the government provides workforce training for industries and companies through a combination of “theory and practice, knowledge and skills, learning and working,” according to the German Missions in the U.S website. As part of the program, high school graduates work as apprentices at a specific company, while simultaneously completing theory coursework. These apprenticeships can last anywhere from one to four years and often result in job placement within the same company, with the ability to gain increasing levels of certification, skill sets and managerial positions.

Sen. Heath praises the German model for better integrating the concepts of school and work. According to him, there are thousands of jobs in the Colorado industrial sector “where we just don’t have the skilled work force to do it. Particularly in manufacturing, you have a demonstrated need and well-paying jobs. What we need to do is make sure that the right people understand that and then apply themselves and are given every opportunity to succeed both in the classroom and the workforce,” he says.

Although the workforce in Colorado is expanding to meet market demands, much of this occurs through the importation of highly educated and/or skilled laborers. The workforce legislation and state run programs are intended to “ensure that the education and training pipelines within the state are adequately preparing youth and adults for the workforce and are aligned with the needs of the economy,” according to the 2105 Colorado Talent Pipeline report presented to legislators by the Colorado Workforce Development Council (CWDC).

The report states that approximately 23 of every 100 ninth graders in Colorado will follow the conventional path — graduating high school, entering a post-secondary degree program and completing some level of certification within the four-year time frame. Of those initial 100 students, only 18 are expected to enter the Colorado workforce the first year after graduation, while some either get jobs outside of the state or delay starting their careers.

To change these statistics, Colorado is currently developing more than 30 partnerships with companies in sectors as manufacturing, healthcare, and information and technology that are directly working with community colleges to develop career pathways through career and technical education (CTE).

The CWDC gathers industry employers, helping them assess their needs, then relays that information to educators who backwards map curriculum based on those communicated needs. These CTE courses are either offered as part of concurrent enrollment for high school students, or at a variety of post-secondary institutions, mainly community colleges.

“What’s nice about the sector partnerships is that they are coming to the table to say what their needs are and then we’re meeting them that way,” says Dr. Sarah Heath (no relation to Sen. Rollie Heath), assistant provost with the Colorado Community College System.

“We’re trying to match what’s best for the student as well as the employer to make the partnership really work.”

The recent legislation also includes bills that create career pathway programs at community colleges for students in a variety of industries that partner with different industry associations such as the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance.

“We’re really trying to help students understand, no matter how old they are, where they fit best in that career pathway,” says Dr. Heath. “How there are different entry points and exit points. You don’t necessarily have to follow one straight path anymore, it’s almost a curvy path with different ways that you can benefit yourself.”

CWDC also reports on Colorado’s “top jobs” or areas where there is significant growth, a high-level of job openings and provide a livable salary for the average family. These jobs include skilled trades, such as carpentry and industrial machinery mechanics, in addition to informational technology, healthcare and finance. Currently, only 7 percent of Colorado’s top jobs require an apprenticeship, while 15 percent require some form of on-the-job training and 45 percent require a bachelor’s degree.

The 2015 legislation “brings all of the different players together and we actually have a team working together on these initiatives so that we’re not stepping on each other’s toes,” Dr. Heath says. “So that we can make sure that students have access to programs and that we’re all aware of each other’s programs. It’s nice when a statute forces you to have these conversations that we’ve been wanting to have all along.”

During the 2013-14 school year, 38 percent of all Colorado high school students participated in CTE programs and there were close to 18,000 CTE program certificate or degree completions, according to the Colorado Department of Education concurrent enrollment annual report. Of the 12th grade CTE students, 30 percent who responded to surveys reported being employed in a field related to their training within six months of completing the program, while another 60 percent reported enrollment in a post-secondary education program within the same time frame.

“I’m still convinced that the biggest reason for the high drop-out rate is that kids who don’t see college as their future, don’t really see any other options,” Sen. Heath concludes. “Part of this program is to make sure kids do understand what’s possible with their life, but only if they develop the knowledge and experience.”

The Obama administration is also embracing the apprenticeship model, offering more than $100 million in federal grants through the Department of Labor for apprenticeships in such fields as advanced manufacturing and healthcare. It is a “proven strategy” as a pathway to the middle class, with 87 percent of apprentices finding employment with an average annual starting salary of $50,000, according to the White House when it launched the program in Dec. 2014.