Education Report: Help Found

Community college apprenticeships tackle skilled-labor shortage

Single dad Joe Lesniak has worked as a chef and a traveling salesman, but now he finally has a steady job he loves that allows time with his two daughters.

“I’ve never been happier,” says Lesniak, 45. “I actually look forward to coming in Monday morning. I’ve never had a job like that.”

Lesniak was one of 11 students who completed the new registered medical assistant paid apprenticeship program initiated in summer 2018 by Centura Health and Arapahoe Community College (ACC) in Littleton. A second class of 10 students, selected from nearly 100 candidates interviewed, kicked off a six-month apprenticeship in January.

The program is one of multiple new and growing apprenticeships created through joint efforts by state workforce centers, community colleges and industry to help tackle the ongoing skilled labor shortage. The Colorado Community College System supports current registered apprenticeships in fields ranging from early childhood education to industrial maintenance technicians and is exploring new apprenticeships in everything from horticulture to cyber security, says Michael Macklin, the system’s associate vice chancellor for workforce development and partnerships.

Surveys by Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Succeeds show 86 percent of Colorado employers say the skills gap between workers and available jobs is a threat to their business. With the shortage of middle-skilled employees – from medical lab technicians to IT help desk staff to machinists – more than half of Colorado employers surveyed say they spend more on training and recruiting, experience productivity loss and lower work quality and have slower business growth.

The Centura and ACC partnership created a hybrid, truncated program that combines college learning with 32 hours a week of work-based training in a medical clinic. 

“We co-created a very intentional approach where the students would be applying what they are learning through curriculum that day or that week,” says Eric Dunker, ACC dean of business, technology and workforce partnerships. The college’s traditional classroom-based medical assistant training requires 18 months and may cost up to $10,000. 

“For middle-skilled positions that aren’t paying high wages, the onus is on the workforce system, education and industry to make sure students come out with as little debt as possible,” Dunker says. “There is enough opportunity for traditional programs and robust apprenticeship programs to co-exist, but we must start expanding more integrated training programs like apprenticeships if we are going to solve the labor shortage in this country.”

The medical assistant pilot is free to students, who then commit to working 13 months for Centura after their apprenticeship.

“As a single dad of two teenage girls, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on anything, let alone going back to school,” says Lesniak, who was laid off from his sales job in December 2017.

Lesniak endured a heavy blow when he missed his older daughter’s middle school graduation because he was away at a sales meeting. Now, he works a regular schedule at a family medical practice just 15 minutes from home and has time to serve as assistant volleyball coach for his younger daughter’s team.

Dunker says his campus plans to expand this modern apprenticeship model for other middle-skills allied health positions that do not require a college degree, such as certified nursing assistant and medical lab technicians. 

Another medical assistant apprenticeship is underway through a partnership with Front Range Community College in Westminster and Associates of Family Medicine. 

“We are seeing apprenticeships pop up in health care in a way we have never seen before,” says Adam Crowe, business development manager at Larimer County Economic and Workforce Development.

The fifth annual Colorado Talent Pipeline Report ( released in December by the Colorado Workforce Development Council notes that by 2020, 74 percent of Colorado jobs will require some type of education beyond high school. Yet Colorado’s existing labor force has a credential attainment rate of only 55 percent. 

“For more than 400,000 Colorado adults with some post-secondary education, but no credential “connecting these individuals to training in high demand skills could put them on a path to the middle class while helping to close the skills gap for employers,” the report says.

One report recommendation is to “implement pilot programs for business incentives to adopt work-based learning such as reductions or waivers in unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation premiums, employer tax credits, preferences in state contracting or economic development packages.” 

Dunker says an apprenticeship can cost more than traditional recruiting for industry up front, but studies show the return on investment is greater because most apprentices stay on the job longer and become better employees. Colorado partnerships are drawing apprenticeship inspiration from deeply rooted models in Germany and Switzerland. 

“What we all realize is we have to modify some of the ways that (colleges) go about working with industry and our program structures,” Dunker says. “It’s about creating parallel models that are a bit more responsive to industry and student needs.” 

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