Apprenticeships can help fix labor shortages, says U.S. Labor Secretary during Denver visit

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
(L-R) Sen. Michael Bennet, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Sen. John Hickenlooper and Gov. Jared Polis speak at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Hire more apprentices. That was Labor Secretary Marty Walsh’s plea to Colorado business leaders during his visit to Denver on Wednesday.

Walsh announced $113 million in new federal grant funding to boost the number of apprentices and diversify the industries using workers who are learning on the job. The program also aims to ensure more women and people of color can access opportunities to learn new trades.

Walsh said with the turbulence in the job market now, apprenticeships offer some measure of stability.

“This is a natural progression into what the future of work will look like in America … creating better pathways and better opportunities for apprenticeships,” Walsh said. “If you talk to companies that have had apprenticeships, historically, they will tell you the huge success of them.”

Alongside Walsh, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, and Gov. Jared Polis toured Metropolitan State University of Denver’s advanced manufacturing lab, followed by a roundtable discussion with apprentices.

The politicians touted the learn-and-earn model as having significant benefits for businesses that should be an integral part of any company’s plan to hire workers. There are federally authorized apprenticeship programs aimed at adults and career changers, but a fast-growing sector targets high school students.

Walsh, speaking earlier to a group of business leaders at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, urged them to create pathways from public schools to their company’s doors.

The labor secretary sees tens of millions of high school students as a “bench” of future workers — eager to play ball now.

“You don’t have a bench, you’re fighting each other for talent,” he said. “You go to high school and reach out — that’s your bench. Why would you leave all of that talent in school districts across America when you could get them into your company?”

Bennet agreed with Walsh about solutions for Colorado businesses clamoring for workers.

“There is not a place in Colorado where there isn’t a workforce shortage right now and this is a very good way to try to address it,” he said.

Bennet said the current education and work development system isn’t driving equity or providing the workforce what it needs. But he said apprenticeship programs have the ability to target and train workers in areas where they are needed, as well as diversify the workforce.

“If you are looking for an opportunity to transform the American economy and the lives of millions of Americans, this is the way to do it,” he said.

When you say apprenticeships, people tend to think of the construction industry. Today apprentices are in myriad industries.

That includes information technology, financial services, advanced manufacturing, health care, real estate management, education, business operations and more.

Colorado’s CareerWise, a statewide apprenticeship program, connects high school students with businesses in industries like banking, insurance, hospitality, data analysis and manufacturing. It helps businesses hire and work with apprentices. Students start in their junior or senior year, completing high school courses while they also work at a company earning an apprenticeship wage.

Colorado’s political leaders have been sold on the idea since a trip six years ago to Switzerland, a country where 70 percent of students choose to go directly into an apprenticeship and just 25 percent choose a traditional college pathway. In Colorado, students are encouraged to make their own choice — continue working full time at the company if offered a job or carry on with more schooling and continue working at the company.

But selling the idea to businesses is more complicated in the U.S. compared to Switzerland. Still, more than 130 employers have already tapped into CareerWise apprentices. And political leaders made the case to Colorado’s business leaders Wednesday that there’s no better time than now to start a program.

“It’s truly a scalable model,” said Gov. Polis. “The time is right now more than ever before because of the worker shortage. You can unlock significant talent for your businesses.”

Colorado is in the process of creating a State Apprenticeship Agency to promote apprenticeships that will give the state, rather than the federal government, the ability to register apprenticeship programs.

Among the benefits the leaders talked about: apprenticeships can boost diversity, earn a positive return on investment based on the value of apprentices’ productivity, increase the capacity of existing staff to focus on high-value work, address the talent shortage and create management opportunities for rising stars.

With fresh mindsets that can drive innovation, youth can give companies a competitive advantage.

Bennet pointed to Colorado-based advanced manufacturing firm Intertech Plastics. Teamwork and innovation are key tenets of the company’s culture and apprentices from local high schools play a big role.

The company credits apprentices with building automations to detect defects on the production line, and developing intelligent process controls and other systems that the company estimates saved $2.4 million over the past two years. Gen Z students often can train older staff in certain tech skills like SolidWorks, a 3D design software.

“Employers like Intertech that have actually gone full in on this have transformed their workforce,” Bennet said. “They do not have a workforce shortage and they have a workforce that looks like Colorado. That’s what’s so exciting about this to me.”

Some apprentices move on to college but continue working at the company.

“That's transformational,” he said. “And there's no reason why we can't scale that across Colorado, and across the country.”

Pinnacol Assurance is another Colorado company where 5 percent of its workforce came out of apprenticeships.

“It’s about helping our young adults discover ourselves,” said Tim Johnson, chief of human resources at Pinnacol. “The apprenticeship opportunity transforms lives.”

Several of the elected officials spoke about how impressed they were with the level of knowledge young apprentices had about their company’s operations — sometimes equal to a five-year veteran. One of those was Gabrielle Davis.

“It was an opportunity for a tangible future,” said Davis, who is now a freshman at Regis University who is also in a business operations apprenticeship at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company where she began as a senior in high school. “Without this apprenticeship, it would have taken me years to build these skills.”

What’s next?

Both Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper are working on legislation to target more funding for youth apprenticeships and regional training networks. 

Bennet will introduce a bill in the fall that would provide federal funds to pay the fixed costs for community colleges, K-12 districts, and businesses to better align curriculum so that students graduate high school with skills ready to earn a living wage.

“And that’s something we can only know if businesses are informing us about what it is they are willing to pay a living wage for and we’re adapting the curriculum to be able to drive that.”

Hickenlooper is working on a bill to provide grants to smaller businesses that would have a harder time paying for an apprenticeship program. Another bill would allow a federal program to fund apprenticeship programs like CareerWise.