This week, the nation is celebrating National Apprenticeship Week. However, unlike the fanfare around “Back to School” or “Teacher Appreciation Week,” our local school has been silent in its elevation or celebration of this increasingly popular work-based learning model. Meanwhile, if my teenage boys were in high school in Switzerland, they would have been hearing about apprenticeships for years as a pathway to career opportunity. In the United States, that has not historically been the case, but things may be starting to change.
Colorado is one state where “apprenticeship” is not an unknown term (hence my surprise that I have not heard a peep about it from school). From the early days of General Assembly expanding their unique tech training model to the Denver area. Then we saw the rise of CareerWise Colorado, founded by national apprenticeship champion Noel Ginsburg. Today, an emerging cohort of fast-growing apprenticeship providers like Multiverse are looking to Colorado given the state’s growing need for tech talent. Suffice to say Colorado is no stranger to innovative education and employment options.
But why and how did Colorado become such a hub for this trending future of work option? It’s in part due to political champions for the apprenticeship model, such as now Senator John Hickenlooper, who saw CareerWise Colorado grow in popularity and reach under his term as Colorado’s Governor. Followed now by Governor Jared Polis and countless policymakers at the state and local level who have become champions for apprenticeship as an option for learners beyond high school. Support for apprenticeships is gaining traction at the national level, too, with everything from initiatives by the White House, national partnerships like the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (which includes CareerWise Colorado), the launch of new organizations such as Apprenticeships for America, and more that are all advocating for new policies that will streamline and expand access to earn-and-learn opportunities.
And not a minute too early. The number of youth apprentices starting a program has more than doubled in the last 10 years – jumping by 113 percent between 2010 and 2020. And it’s no surprise, then, that federal funding for Registered Apprenticeships has increased as a result. And though we are seeing this steady growth, there is debate about equity gaps in youth apprenticeship participation, meaning more needs to be done to make this option readily available for American learners. Needless to say, the time is coming for National Apprenticeship Week to be far more noticeable on our radars and in our schools, because when it comes to “the future” of work, this is it.
I wanted to learn more about the current landscape and the future of apprenticeship in Colorado, but also as a critical component to the future of work. I sat down with Helen Young Hayes—founder and CEO of ActivateWork, a nonprofit recruiting, training and coaching firm that connects employers with a diverse pool of talent—to paint a picture of today’s apprenticeship landscape.
Alison Griffin: What inspired your work in the apprenticeship space and where has that inspiration led you today?
Helen Young Hayes: I believe that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. In 2016, I started ActivateWork to help Coloradans achieve economic freedom through the dignity of work. We are a bridge. We connect jobseekers with jobs. And we connect people’s inherent potential with their realized success.
Our goal is not merely economic self-sufficiency. We want our clients to achieve economic flourishing. So, we connect employers with workers who possess four key qualities that predict on-the-job success: work ethic, initiative, follow-through and coachability. And we coach each new hire for 12 months to ensure they excel in their new role and achieve their fullest potential.
We began by placing people into careers in healthcare, financial services, and skilled trades. In 2020, we launched our IT training program, adding rigorous technical training and credentialing. Our partner, Per Scholas, has trained and placed over 16,000 IT professionals from communities often underrepresented in technology.
Over the next five years, we will catalyze over 1000 people into lucrative IT careers. The U.S. technology industry is overdue for innovation. There is a growing 1.2-million-person IT talent shortage, and higher ed is simply not producing enough computer science graduates. Since forty percent of tech jobs do not require a college degree, employers should be increasingly more open to alternative credentials. Many of our IT employer partners report they value industry certifications and hands-on experience more than a computer science degree.
Apprenticeships help employers develop the exact skills and talent they need for the present and the future, important for hard-to-fill roles. Other benefits include government training subsidies and employee retention rates of over 90% for completed apprentices. Importantly, through apprenticeship, companies are adding to (not competing for) existing talent.
With a severe talent gap, IT is an industry ripe for apprenticeship. Colorado ranks 4th in the nation for tech employment, with 120,000 tech workers earning an average of $104,000. There are currently 30,000 IT job openings and one job opening for every existing IT worker. If filled, those open jobs would add $2 billion to the GDP of our state.
By equipping people with in-demand skills and industry certifications for high-paying roles— debt-free and on-the-job—apprenticeship builds the skilled and diverse workforce we need for today and the future.
Alison: In the state of Colorado, there have been many efforts to integrate apprenticeships into the common vernacular whether through policy, practice or program. What exists today and where are there still gaps in this growing space?
Helen: Apprenticeships are common in the construction trades, but vastly underutilized in the U.S., which has a labor force of 160 million. In 2020, there were 636,000 U.S. apprentices and 82,000 completers nationwide. In Colorado, there are only 6,100 individuals enrolled in apprenticeship, which is less than two-tenths of one percent of our labor pool!
Increasingly, high-skill occupations in IT, aerospace, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing do not require a college degree but require technical or industry certifications or apprenticeships. Leading employers such as Microsoft, Google, Accenture, and IBM have reduced 4-year college degree requirements and use apprenticeships to develop talent for in-demand jobs.
There are many reasons why apprenticeship is underutilized. First, apprenticeships are not prevalent in the U.S. and represent less than half of one percent of our total U.S. workforce. Compare this with Switzerland, where two-thirds of high school graduates choose apprenticeship over college.
Second is the widely held belief that college is the only pathway to economic and professional success. That’s simply not true. The average starting salary for a 4-year college graduate is $55,000, compared to $72,000 a year for an individual who has completed a registered apprenticeship. We must expand the definition of education to include alternative learning pathways and to combat the unspoken stigma associated with vocational and professional credentials.
Additionally, most employers (outside of construction) are unaware of registered apprenticeship as a talent development strategy. Most business leaders confuse apprenticeship with internship and rely on traditional and ineffective talent strategies to fill their vacancies (like poaching talent from competition). Apprenticeships are mushrooming in a variety of industries, including finance, healthcare and IT. In fact, IT/cybersecurity is the fastest growing category of apprenticeship in Colorado and represents 30% of new registered apprenticeships.
Alison: What is the difference between a youth apprenticeship and what it offers a student and an apprenticeship for those beyond the grade school age? Why is it important to differentiate these pathways?
Helen: Youth apprenticeship and adult apprenticeship reach two different populations, under-18 and over-18 years of age. They should be developed side-by-side. Youth apprenticeship provides high schoolers with work-based learning and earning opportunities, equipping them with in-demand skills. Youth are the workforce of our future, and we should position them for success in a rapidly evolving economy.
But youth (16-24) represent only 12% of our workforce. Given trends in automation, AI, and remote work, some 17 million Americans will need to transition to higher-skill occupations by 2030. The adult population—the bulk of our workforce—will also need to upskill rapidly, and apprenticeship enables Americans to learn these skills debt-free and on-the-job while linking them to an employer who invests in them.
I should note that registered apprenticeships are formal workplace-based training programs. Participants receive industry-specified technical instruction and wages from employers. Upon completion, participants receive a nationally recognized certification administered by the Office of Apprenticeship at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Alison: It sounds like learners of many – really any – ages can participate in apprenticeship programs. How do we de-stigmatize these pathways for all learners? How can schools, communities and employers be involved in making apprenticeship the ‘norm’ for learners?
Helen: You’re right—any age can participate in apprenticeship. Our IT learners have ranged in age from 18-71. The first thing employers should do is start developing apprenticeship as a talent development strategy and then broadcast their success.
I sit on Colorado Governor Polis’ Business Experiential Learning Commission. Our mission is to promote employer adoption of apprenticeship and to recommend policy solutions to scale experiential learning. Given the nation’s urgent need to transition workers for the future economy, we need a broad and sustained public relations campaign to reach the adult working population. We must also communicate the benefits of apprenticeship to high school students, counselors, and educators and businesses and industry associations through targeted outreach, such as President Biden’s Cybersecurity Apprenticeship Sprint.
We also need more collaboration between Departments of Labor and Departments of Education to work together to blend and braid credentialing and industry training into higher ed. Workforce centers should channel individuals seeking employment into apprenticeship. And employers experiencing downsizing should encourage displaced employees to seek apprenticeships, especially in adjacent skill sets.
Alison: What does it cost an employer to institute an apprenticeship program? What about the state? What about the education provider? And, finally, is there a cost to the learner? How can those costs be covered?
Helen: That depends on the industry and the length of the apprenticeship. First, there is no cost to the learner.
Employers have three costs: start-up costs, the cost of the apprentice’s training, and wages paid to the employee. If an employer is developing their own registered apprenticeship, there are start-up costs to identify the desired skills and training, design the apprenticeship, and register the apprenticeship with the Department of Labor.
If an employer is working with an intermediary like ActivateWork, there are fewer upfront costs. For example, ActivateWork developed a cyber security apprenticeship with the input of two employers. For additional employers, the learning and training platform has been built and only minor adjustments are required to build a customized cyber apprenticeship.
The average IT apprenticeship is 12 months’ long. The annual cost of the apprenticeship, which covers the education and training provider, is between $10,000 and $17,000 per apprentice. Additional training time by the supervisor and the monitor the results should be added in. The wages of an apprentice range from $18-28/hour, depending on the job. Government incentives of $3,000-5,000 per apprentice reduce the cost of the apprenticeship.
The ROI on apprenticeship is compelling. Think of it as stocking your own pond. Employers hire entry-level talent at a lower price point and build an intentional learning and work plan to build the skills they need for the positions they can’t fill. Using cyber security as a case study, rather than competing for a limited pool of talent at an average salary of $100,000, employers pay between $58,000-80,000 in starting salary for an individual who has completed their 12-month apprenticeship. And they’re building an evergreen talent pool for tomorrow.
Alison: What is your hope for the future for apprenticeships – and apprenticeships in Colorado? What advice do you have for colleagues who want to support this growing model of education and work-based learning?
Helen: My hope is that apprenticeship soon becomes a significant form of learning and training in Colorado, equipping people for family-sustaining careers in the knowledge economy. Through apprenticeship, we can build a diverse and agile workforce for the present and the future.
My advice for colleagues is to learn more about apprenticeship and career-connected education. Spread the word. And my advice for business leaders is to explore the myriad options for every industry to develop their long-term strategic workforce through apprenticeship.