U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez speaks at an announcement of a new youth apprenticeship and career readiness program in Denver on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.

(Couretesy CareerWise Colorado)

Colorado took a major step in building a locally grown workforce on Wednesday by launching a youth apprenticeship program modeled after one in Switzerland.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was in Denver for the announcement, which he says makes  Colorado a national leader at transforming the way students move from high school into careers.

"You’re going to have a lot of other states wanting to come and visit you to figure out what you’re doing," Perez said.

The state will not contribute any money to the program. Officials made it clear it will be private businesses that will determine whether this new apprenticeship program takes off and becomes a model for the country -- or dies. Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced $9.5 million to help fuel the effort, which is now called CareerWise Colorado.

A New Type Of Apprenticeship 

The apprenticeships of old were a way for young people to learn the trades, like plumbing or welding. Traditionally trades companies would train a young worker teaching them skills and then give them a job.

But nowadays, countries like Switzerland use apprenticeship programs to fill jobs in a bunch of areas – like finance, IT, engineering, and the biomedical sciences. Nearly 70 percent of young Swiss students do apprenticeships,  but their educational options remain open. So you can have apprentices with PhDs.

Perez said the program is good for the right reasons. He said the U.S. should be ashamed for devaluing apprenticeship programs for so many years, and that now is the right time to learn from other countries’ experiences.

"I am confident this is going to be something where you’re going to stimulate your economy," he said.

The program will start next fall. Students in 11th grade could spend up to three days a week at a company. The other two days they’re in high school, getting the core classes in other areas that they need to graduate. They’d also get paid for their time with the company and graduate with some college credit.

After graduating high school, students could either go right into the work world, go to a community college part time, or even enroll in a four-year college. The idea is that more options overall open up.

The goal for 2027 is to have one in 10 high school students in an apprentice program.

A 'Crying Need' In Colorado

Right now, Colorado has an estimated 25,000 weekly job vacancies in high-growth industries that go unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers. Seventy percent of Colorado adults are not from here – they are transplants from out of state.

At the same time, there has been this tremendous push to get all kids to a four-year college. But that’s not necessarily what’s needed or what all students want.  

"The path to economic mobility, the likes of which the world rarely sees, is not for every student to go to a four-year liberal arts college," said Kent Thiry, chairman and CEO of DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc., which hosted the event. "In fact, there’s a desperate need, a crying need, on both the supply side for more focused programs, more applied programs, more vocational programs."

CareerWise Colorado’s chair Noel Ginsburg with Intertech Plastics says up until now, schools have been carrying all the burden for training the workforce.  

"This is really dependent not on the schools, because I can tell you, they’re doing their job," Ginsburg said. "They need us to do ours."

Schools districts across the state have pledged to make apprenticeships part of the graduation requirements. What that curriculum for learning on the job will look like will be worked out through partnership with schools, industry, colleges and workforce centers.

Mindset Shift for Businesses

Officials acknowledged setting up apprenticeships will be a mindset shift for many Colorado businesses.

 “If it [Colorado’s apprenticeship program] is to succeed, businesses have to see how it is profitable,” says Katherine Caves, an economist with a Swiss economic institute who is advising CareerWise, which will help businesses work on curriculum.

She says economic modeling shows precisely at what point apprentices start being profitable to a company, saving it money in the long term. Swiss businesses have found the apprenticeship program to be a more efficient way of finding employees. Officials say programs similar to CareerWise apprenticeships result in less turnover and fewer wasted training dollars.

So far, Denver, Cherry Creek, Mesa 51 in Grand Junction, and Jefferson County school districts have signed on. School districts across the state are developing new graduation guidelines that are no longer based on credits in required courses, but include other graduation pathways such as capstone projects or apprenticeship programs.  

Denver Public Schools has already laid the groundwork for an apprenticeship program. This summer as part of the district’s CareerConnect program, 7,000 kids participated in internships in various technical fields. It was meant to be a stepping stone to the apprenticeship program that the district will pilot next fall across four industries: information technology, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and business and finance.

Students will get paid, get trained, and by the time they graduate high school, they will have earned half of a bachelor’s degree.

That is crucial, officials say, in an era where college is financially impossible for many students. Labor Secretary Perez called apprenticeships the "other college," without the debt.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg says the apprenticeship initiative is about closing opportunity gaps.

“The skills that many of our students lack is the set of connections and networking opportunities that many of our kids from more affluent families have,” said Boasberg.