Why tech companies, schools and others are turning to an old-school career path in Colorado

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Ying Wang, at home in Broomfield, August 10, 2023. She was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years raising kids with her husband. Now she’s trying to get back into the workforce, through a software engineer apprentice program.

Ying Wang’s living room in suburban Broomfield is decorated with pops of the color red: the toaster, the coffee machine, the wall calendar — all in shades of crimson.

“It’s kind of a happy color in my culture,” explained the 39-year-old, who emigrated from China with her husband. And it resonates with her personality, too.

“Enthusiasm,” she explained. “Red is that symbol.”

And that’s just how she felt — eager and confident — two years ago, when she first decided to return to the workforce after spending the past decade raising her three kids.

“At the beginning? I was super excited,” she said. She figured that the job search would go smoothly, with her background in project management and technology.

But after months without progress, her confidence began to waver.

“All I received were rejection emails,” she recalled. “I didn’t even get an interview, a single interview. Can you imagine that?”

Wang had joined the countless Americans who, despite all the talk of labor shortages, simply can’t land a job, whether it’s because of a resume gap, age discrimination, a mark on their record or other biases.

But just a year later, Wang has found a way forward. She’s become an apprentice. It’s a career path that has historically been reserved for the trades, such as electricians and plumbers — but it’s increasingly gaining traction in industries like education, health care, and technology.

“The apprenticeship gave us an opportunity,” she said, “that you can’t get from other places.”

Boot camps aren’t always enough

After growing frustrated with her job search, Wang initially tried a different path. She enrolled in a tech bootcamp with the nonprofit ActivateWork to update her skills. The four-month program was intense, but she realized it likely still would not be enough to reach her dream job.

“My goal is to be a senior engineer, a software engineer, or even, imagine far [in the future], a tech lead,” Wang said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Ying Wang, at home in Broomfield, August 10, 2023, holds a photo of herself and her husband at the Maroon Bells near Aspen.

It’s a common challenge: Boot camps are popular, but there’s only so much students can learn in a few months, said Kathryn Harris, president of ActivateWork, a nonprofit recruiting and training organization.

The organization has done a good job of finding jobs for its boot camp graduates, according to Harris, but they were often concentrated in lower-level positions on IT support desks — rather than in the most hotly demanded, higher-paying roles. So, the group began to look for other opportunities.

“We wanted to build entry-level pathways … into jobs in cybersecurity, into jobs in software development, into jobs in DevOps,” Harris said. “And so, we increasingly saw apprenticeship as the pathway to get to that place.”

ActivateWork started working with employers to offer apprenticeships to its students last year. Ying Wang was one of the first cohort of 13 students to nab a spot. Wang is now halfway through a posting as a programmer with the Colorado Community College System’s state office. Others have headed to places like Ping Identity and Bank of America.

Apprenticeships are sometimes called “earn and learn” jobs. They might last anywhere from six months to a couple years. Students are expected to learn through a mix of on-the-job experience and classroom training.

ActivateWork’s apprentices are earning an average of $63,000 by the end of their apprenticeships, compared to only about $50,000 for people taking jobs straight out of the boot camp, Harris said. And those apprentices may then move up the ladder to positions that earn from $90,000 to $120,000, she said.

State data shows growing interest in apprenticeships by a wide variety of employers — a result of both a tight labor market and increasing government support, experts said.

The government is spending big on apprenticeships

President Barack Obama kickstarted a new wave of interest in apprenticeship in 2014, when he made them a focus of his State of the Union address. Since then, the federal government and Colorado’s state government have spent more heavily on grants and other programs.

“One of the exciting things about apprenticeship is it's pretty bipartisan,” said Kerry McKittrick, associate director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard. Under Obama, federal spending on apprenticeships increased from $30 million to $150 million, and both the Trump and Biden administrations have continued that emphasis.

Meanwhile, the state of Colorado has gained some national attention for its own work in the field. CareerWise, a youth-oriented apprenticeship program that debuted under Gov. John Hickenlooper, is seen as a national model. 

The state also has put more money and manpower toward apprenticeships under Gov. Jared Polis.

In 2021, the state debuted Apprenticeship Colorado, a program that hands out apprenticeship grants and oversees employers’ registered apprenticeship programs. The program now employs more than a dozen people — compared to the single federal employee who previously oversaw much of the regulation of apprenticeships in Colorado.

“We're really excited about apprenticeship, as you can imagine. And we believe it is the future of work,” said Katherine Keegan, executive director of the state’s Office of the Future of Work, which includes Apprenticeship Colorado. Colorado joined 31 other states and territories with state apprenticeship agencies.

Registered apprenticeships — seen as the “gold standard,” McKittrick said — involve more government oversight than other forms of employment. Regulators aim to ensure that apprentices are making gains in their wages, and that the apprenticeships are offering appropriate hours of classroom instruction and training.

In exchange for those extra costs and regulations, employers can get grant funding and promotion. But many remain hesitant about the cost and time of offering an apprenticeship, which can run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per apprentice. For example, ActivateWork charges each employer a fee equivalent to the 12% of each first-year apprentice’s salary in exchange for administering the program.

“They're kind of wary of the administrative burdens, especially for registered apprenticeships. And so when you can have the state take a lead, when you see governors really demonstrating that it's a priority for them and kind of using the bully pulpit to encourage businesses to take on apprenticeships, it's a big deal,” McKittrick said.

Kathryn Harris said that while the early results are promising, it still takes a lot of convincing to get companies on board.

“A lot of employers know about apprenticeship in terms of the trades and electricians and plumbing. But starting to see apprenticeship for some of these other industries and sectors is relatively new,” she said, “even though it’s a tried-and-true method that’s been around for centuries.”

Are apprenticeships working in Colorado?

In Colorado, the push to expand apprenticeships seems to be having an effect. The number of organizations registered to host apprentices has grown from fewer than 200 in 2018 to more than 300 today.

The actual number of apprentices in Colorado has been growing too, reaching about 6,100 at present. That’s higher than any recent year except 2018, and state officials expect to see more enrollments as employers get their newly registered programs up and running.

On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis told the state it’s time to move faster. A new executive order directs state departments to develop at least a half-dozen new apprenticeship programs, compared to the 12 that currently exist in state government. It says that all state departments must develop a plan to expand other “work-based learning” programs, adding at least two per department. The order aims for another 100 apprenticeship programs in Colorado overall, including the private sector, by June 30, 2024.

Research shows apprenticeship can reap significant benefits for both employers, who can gain access to loyal and skilled new employees, and to a diverse set of workers who can see significant wage gains, according to McKittrick.

“Apprenticeship is one of the most well-researched, longest standing, work-based learning methods out there,” she said. “In tech apprenticeships, when students complete them, they can see a huge bump in salary. And this opportunity to earn while you learn is really, really important, especially on the equity side, because not everyone has time to take time out of the workforce.”

Still, McKittrick said, apprenticeships are just about 1 percent of the overall labor market.

“We're seeing this new push. But on the whole, it's still small. It's really the beginning,” she said.

Back in Broomfield, Ying Wang says that it’s proved the right choice for her. She appreciates the chance to gain experience — with the expectation that she’s also learning.

“You’re solving the real problems, compared to what you have learned from the book,” she said. “It’s really meaningful daily work.”