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How learning by doing leads to success

CareerWise Colorado program emphasizes career-readiness, jobs for school credit


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As Colorado businesses struggle to find qualified people to fill open jobs, the state is embarking on a journey that will unite industry and educators.

Fueled by a $9.5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., CareerWise Colorado is an apprenticeship program designed to develop pathways for students to access high-demand, high-paying jobs. During its first year, it will focus on advanced manufacturing, business operations, financial services and information technology, with additional pathways to be added as the program expands.

“The education process as we know it sits within the classroom, and in most cases, we continue to lay on more and more objectives for those schools to prepare students for the working world,” says Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics and chairman of the CareerWise board. “Business continues to set these expectations and then we go back to our offices and serve as great critics because we didn’t get what we want. This system is not about philanthropy. This is about building better businesses.”

The program comes at a time when employers are demanding a better-skilled work force. During the 1970s, most jobs in Colorado went to people with a high school diploma or less. But by 2020, an estimated 65 percent of jobs in Colorado and across the nation will require some college or more.

“Combining theory and practice will produce kids who are prepared for today’s work force,” says Tim Heaton, president of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance. “Our educators are trying very hard, but the system is geared toward teaching theory; so when it comes to manufacturing, there’s still a skills gap. There has to be some retraining to make students suitable to fill these open positions.”

Based on the Swiss model known as VET (Swiss Vocational Education System), CareerWise enables students to put theories they’ve learned in the classroom into practice in businesses across the state. During the 2017-18 pilot year, more than 2,500 high school students will receive career-readiness training, and 250 students will spend up to half their time at jobs as apprentices while still earning credit toward high school graduation and post-secondary credentials.

An additional year of apprenticeship after graduation will give students the experience they need to enter the work force or continue their education, with the added benefit of college credits and wages earned.

The program gives students who might otherwise not have had an opportunity a pathway to careers that enable them to become a part America’s middle class; the average student coming out of an apprenticeship earns an average salary of $55,000 annually.

“It’s designed to not just serve one class of kids,” Ginsburg says. “It’s for all children, regardless of whether they choose to go on to get a four-year degree or not.”

Ginsburg traveled to Switzerland with a group from Denver Public Schools to explore the apprenticeship model. What he saw was so powerful that he called Gov. John Hickenlooper and asked him to lead a delegation to the country.

Hickenlooper was impressed with the Swiss system, in which 70 percent of students choose to participate and achieve 30 percent higher earnings than non-apprentices in equivalent professions.

“Establishing this network is the right move from the state, business and ultimately kids,” Hickenlooper told a group gathered at DaVita Inc.’s headquarters in September during Denver Startup Week. “This is the right model for the 21st century.”

It’s a model that’s been working well in Denver Public Schools, which launched its CareerConnect program three years ago. In fact, it was Joe Saboe, director of the program, who invited Ginsburg on the initial trip to Switzerland.

“Our vision is to fundamentally transform the high school learning experience and post-secondary opportunities,” Saboe says. “This is about unification of college and career.”

The program, in which DPS partners with more than 150 companies and colleges to provide hands-on experiences, equips students with high-demand skills and leads to opportunities for continued education and careers in industries that are fast-growing and provide opportunities for advancement.

The program is driven by demand from both higher-ed and industry, which suggests that the talent pipeline will meet their needs if students are prepared for the challenges they’ll face in the future. With much of the learning taking place outside the classroom, students are able to see the relevance of what they’re learning and determine whether they prefer a particular field. They can achieve industry credentials and college credit in high school, as well as earn an associates degree free of charge.

“We’re trying to make classes inspiring, engaging and fun,” Saboe says.

Students participating in CareerConnect can choose from industries ranging from engineering and architecture to hospitality and even medicine. Participants have a 30 percent higher graduation rate than their peers; in 2016, DPS experienced its largest graduating class in history with 500 more graduates than the previous spring.

“This program solves youth unemployment, improves graduation rates and provides businesses with employees,” Soboe says. “This is an opportunity for us to redefine how learning happens and the opportunity to change the landscape of what happens.”

Another program that’s placing its students with companies is the Turing School of Software & Design, which boasts that 92.4 percent of its graduates are employed full-time within 120 days of completing its seven-month program. Turing will graduate nearly 300 software developers next year, but half of them will leave Colorado for jobs elsewhere. Jeff Casimir, Turing’s executive director, says apprenticeships are key to getting employers comfortable with hiring junior employees.

“If somebody doesn’t have experience, they’re a risk,” he says. “The job of HR is to mitigate risk. If we can find ways to reduce that perceived risk, that feels a lot more approachable to hiring managers.”

   Though Colorado is the only state building a program, apprenticeships have been recognized at the federal level as a way to provide a career path to kids who can’t afford or don’t want to attend college, as well as providing businesses with a qualified work force. The U.S. Department of Labor in July announced a $90 million funding strategy to grow and diversify apprenticeship programs.

   “Apprenticeship is the other college except without the debt,” said Thomas Perez, secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. “Colorado is leading the nation on apprenticeships because you have understood the principles of success.” cb

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Margaret Jackson

Margaret Jackson is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 25 years in the newspaper industry, including seven years as a business reporter for The Denver Post covering residential and commercial real estate. She can be reached at myjackson7@gmail.com.

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