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Can Practical Education Close Colorado’s Skills Gap?

A business alliance aims to transform Colorado’s workforce while helping Zoomers find economic mobility

Jamie Siebrase //June 24, 2024//

Photo courtesy of BuildStrong Academy of Colorado

Photo courtesy of BuildStrong Academy of Colorado

Can Practical Education Close Colorado’s Skills Gap?

A business alliance aims to transform Colorado’s workforce while helping Zoomers find economic mobility

Jamie Siebrase //June 24, 2024//

If you’re a Colorado business leader, then you might think we’re stating the obvious: Young Coloradans aren’t always prepared for the jobs that are available today.

To close this “skills gaps,” the Colorado Chamber of Commerce partnered with Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Inclusive Economy, Colorado Technology Association, and Colorado Thrives to launch the Education to Employment Alliance late last year. The Alliance aims to shape Colorado’s workforce by improving practical and experiential opportunities such as apprenticeships – which have been a lifeline for some local Zoomers.

The Power of Apprenticeships

Fatima Amador, a first-generation student, was entering her senior year in high school when she learned about Pinnacol Assurance’s Youth Mentorship Program. The insurance company works with CareerWise Colorado to enlist six to eight young adults annually for multi-year apprenticeships designed to develop business competencies.

Most first-year apprentices take high school classes in the morning, then work at Pinnacol in the afternoon. “Apprentices are encouraged to go on to college, and our third-year apprentices get some tuition assistance,” explains Julie Wilmes, the company’s apprenticeship program manager.

For Amador, the experience was a game-changer. “My parents didn’t have much education,” she confides. Prior to joining Pinnacol’s corporate citizenship team in 2018, Amador felt like her best prospect was an hourly job in retail. Instead, Pinnacol provided a pathway toward a corporate job that pays so well Amador was able to buy her first house at age 22. “I’ve been saving for retirement since I was 17,” she says.

Amador did so well during her first year at Pinnacol that she was hired full-time the following year, as a director’s assistant, and now she’s stepping into her latest role as the company’s apprenticeship program facilitator, onboarding new apprentices, many of whom are BIPOC and/or low-income students.

A Pressing Need

“Colorado’s business climate has changed a lot over the last ten years,” explains Loren Furman, the president & CEO of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce. “Workforce is one of our biggest issues,” she continues, noting that, “Local businesses across the state are having trouble filling jobs in almost every industry sector.”

In an effort to better understand that challenges facing state businesses, the Chamber surveyed 156 businesses leaders in Colorado in 2023. Finding and retaining skilled employees was listed as a top challenge. In fact, 48 percent of those surveyed said they have job openings that are difficult to fill. The sentiment was particularly strong among companies with more than 100 employees (65%) and manufacturers (65%).

Although a common form of training in other countries, apprenticeships are historically underused in the U.S. “We know apprenticeships, internships, mentorships, and even job-shadows are really effective tools for long-term success,” says Katie Zaback, VP of policy for Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit, bipartisan network of 65 Colorado businesses (Pinnacol included) that are committed to improving the state’s education system.

According to Colorado’s Talent Pipeline Report, over 90 percent of jobs that pay a wage sufficient to sustain a family require some postsecondary education past a high school diploma. But not all of the jobs require a four-year college degree. “The idea is that shorter, more targeted programs can have immediate value with local businesses,” says Joe Kuntner, Colorado Succeeds’ chairman of the board and a managing director at Slalom, the global technology consulting firm.

Apprenticeships can create upward mobility for Colorado’s youngest workers, but the practical programs also benefit employers tremendously by allowing business leaders to develop their talent pipeline. According to national data prepared by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2022, the typical employer experiences a 44.3 percent return on their investment in registered apprenticeships, if both direct and indirect benefits are counted.

Closing the Gap

“Too few employees are prepared to fill available jobs,” says Allison Stepnitz, director of BuildStrong Academy, offering a Construction Bootcamp backed by Oakwood Homes to support youth and adults starting careers in homebuilding.

State data developed through a public-private partnership with the data company Luminance shows that Colorado currently needs 33,500 infrastructure and construction workers – plus an additional 50,000 by 2030 – in order to deliver on current projects while meeting climate and housing goals. BuildStrong’s training programs provide hands-on instruction – and industry recognized certificates – to ensure students who graduate are ready for immediate jobs in the industry.

The Colorado Department of Education and local K-12 school districts are embracing apprenticeships in multiple ways, working with employers to create pathways for high school students while simultaneously expanding apprenticeship opportunities for teaching candidates. The State Teacher Degree Apprenticeship Program, which was made possible by legislation passed in 2023, was created to get more teachers into classrooms through an apprenticeship program that builds on elements of current teacher licensure programs.

One of the Alliance’s overarching goals it to bring more business leaders together in order to demystify apprenticeships for Colorado high schools. “So often business leaders complain about the current work force,” says Zaback. The Alliance is essentially asking businesses put their money where their mouth is through meaningful partnerships with local schools.