(Photo: CareerWise Colorado)

Access to the workforce through earn-and-learn opportunities

Scaling the model is going to require more widespread structure and support

As employers search for solutions to fill open jobs, earn-and-learn models are coming into focus as viable solutions. Employees – while working and getting paid – can learn needed skills for jobs in their chosen fields.

“Let’s say you are a mechanic. There’s now a lot of electric cars and you need to learn some new skills to adapt to what’s changing in your job, then you might want some type of earn-and-learn opportunity to update your skills but not necessarily have to go away and get another college degree,” says Annelies Goger, fellow at Brookings Metro. “That traditional college degree doesn’t quite fit that situation.” 

Annelies Goger, fellow, Brookings Metro

The challenge, says Goger, is that earn-and-learn opportunities are more the exception than the norm. 

The best-known examples of these models are apprenticeships, long used in the skilled trades.  And they are growing. The number of new apprentices jumped 64% between 2012 and 2021, according to Department of Labor data. Currently, there are roughly 519,000 apprentices in the U.S.

Employers in a host of industries including tech, healthcare, and teaching are turning to apprenticeships to attract talent and ensure opportunities reach the majority of Americans who don’t earn a college degree.

But Goger says the pace of scaling these programs has limits since there is no widespread structure to support them and points out that laws establishing  registered apprenticeships  date back to the 1930’s.

“It’s not really designed to be a full-on pathway that’s integrated into our current education system. It’s designed to operate as a sort of one-off thing that an employer does,” explains Goger. 

There are growing efforts to change that. Employers, educators, policymakers, and nonprofits are taking cues from apprenticeship models in Europe, particularly Switzerland, where more than two-thirds of students begin careers with apprenticeships.

“I think that model in Switzerland is worth looking at because it’s basically a formal system, a whole system of applied universities and they are consistently among the top countries in innovation in the world. I think it’s because they have very robust structures for enabling people to work in a workplace and study at a high level, postsecondary level – and that’s an easy pathway to pursue,” notes Goger. 

Getting Educators and Employers to Work Together

Creating dual education-vocational pathways for apprentices hasn’t been easy. Advocates of youth apprenticeships point to a big gap between what’s being taught in classrooms and what the workforce needs. 

Ryan Gensler, executive vIce president, CareerWise USA

“Education can’t do this on their own and employers can’t do this on their own. Bridging those two together is the only way that we can actually  get to scale,” says Ryan Gensler, executive vice president of CareerWise USA, a nonprofit that connects and leads stakeholders to build youth apprenticeship programs. 

Those stakeholders include employers, high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, training providers, and families. Started in 2016 in Colorado to address a sizable labor shortage, the organization has since formed partnerships in New York City, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and across Indiana.

To date, Gensler says CareerWise has been instrumental in creating 1,900 high school apprentices in more than two dozen occupations where students learn on the job with employers. He touts Switzerland’s apprenticeship system as a model and is eager to spread the word about the impact he’s seen.

“I consider myself an apprenticeship evangelist because I believe this is worth evangelizing. This is a movement, it’s not just programs. It’s not just a way a company trains a person on its team. It can be a way that we rebuild hope in this country and a way that we fix our broken education system,” says Gensler. 

He advocates for schools to be flexible with both course requirements and schedules to allow work-based learning.

And he points to a success story at Colorado’s Pinnacol Assurance, a workers’ compensation insurance company that’s been in business for more than a century. It needed new ways to attract talent and is a partner with CareerWise working with schools in the Denver metro area. 

Getting Teens Interested in Corporate Careers 

Pinnacol Assurance launched its first apprenticeship cohort in 2017 and has enrolled roughly 70 apprentices, with 14 hired as full-time employees. 

First, the company had to get young people interested in an insurance company. To do that, it began inviting high school students to Pinnacol’s campus to expose them to different career paths, explain youth apprenticeships, and the benefits they would receive. 

Julie Wilmes, apprenticeship program manager, Pinnacol Assurance

“I do think that has had a strong pull on our recruitment and the numbers of applicants that we get compared to other companies. I think students are really just seeking that stability in a supported environment,” says Julie Wilmes, apprenticeship program manager at Pinnacol Assurance. 

The company hires high school juniors and seniors, and some high school graduates for three-year apprenticeship programs.

To prepare them for the workplace, Wilmes explains that Pinnacol Assurance created its own 25-unit business professional curriculum covering topics from public speaking, setting goals to time management since there are no equivalent classes in schools. She notes that CareerWise also now offers a business essentials course for new apprentices. 

“It’s like a one-month crash course in emailing and calendaring and just presenting yourself well with your personal brand. Luckily, that has helped quite a bit for students coming in so they are not starting from scratch. But we’d love to see some more involvement from the schools,” says Wilmes. 

Developing Skills That Go Beyond the Company

Once students are enrolled, they can pursue opportunities in business operations and information technology. The pathways include claims and underwriting, business operations, human resources, data science, cybersecurity, user experience, junior coder, and IT Help Desk. 

(Photo: Pinnacol Assurance)

The pathways are aligned with the Department of Labor and comply with its requirements – students working 16 hours a week in high school and increasing their hours while enrolled in college. 

“We have registered our pathways to ensure there is cachet beyond just the Pinnacol environment,” says Mark Tapy, senior talent management manager at Pinnacol Assurance. “We don’t want to just train apprentices to only really be successful at Pinnacol but not really have transferable skills for the broader marketplace.”

Mark Tapy, senior talent management manager, Pinnacol Assurance

Tapy says apprentices earn the local minimum wage to start with increases along the way. The minimum wage in Denver is currently $18.29 an hour.

Once in the ranks of the workforce, Tapy says salaries can range in the six figures for some technology roles and averaging around $60,000 for other roles.

“Ideally, we really want to make sure that this is a mechanism to family-sustaining, middle class roles. That’s incredibly important for us, particularly given the demographics that tend to gravitate towards our program,” notes Tapy. 

A majority of apprentices who are hired full-time are BIPOC and Tapy says, “They are often less represented in the workforce and there are often less pathways to the middle class in a lot of communities where our apprentices come from. We know that this can be another ladder to achieve, I guess, break generational poverty and achieve sustainability which we feel is very important as a key tenet of the programming model.”

From Uncertainty to a Career Path 

One apprentice turned full-time hire is Fatima Amador, apprenticeship program facilitator at Pinnacol Assurance.

Fatima Amador, apprenticeship program facilitator, Pinnacol Assurance

Because of college unaffordability, Amador explains she wasn’t sure what her future held after high school. Her parents are immigrants from Mexico and work hard to support the family, but paying for college would have fallen on her. When she heard about Pinnacol’s apprenticeship program, she was sold after visiting the company’s headquarters for an interview.

“The fact that I could work here one day just blew my mind,” says Amador. “There’s not a lot of opportunities like that for kids my age. I was 17 at the time. I couldn’t imagine myself working in a corporate environment at that age.”  

In 2018, Amador became an apprentice in her senior year of high school and was offered a full-time job a little more than a year later working as an assistant to four business directors.  She credits her experience with not only teaching her about business but skills such as perseverance and discipline.

While she plans on finishing her bachelor’s degree in business in the future, Amador notes her career changed her life. “I was able to buy my first home at 22.” As a single parent, she is already saving money for her son’s college education.

Now in her new role as the apprenticeship program facilitator, Amador wants to ensure that young people like herself are aware of these pathways. “Apprenticeships serve like a beacon of hope for students coming from underrepresented areas. So, just me knowing firsthand all of the challenges that I faced, I want these opportunities to be accessible for them.”

Beyond Colorado, efforts to build these kinds of youth apprenticeships are growing in states like Indiana and Alabama. The National Governors Association tapped these three states along with Kansas, North Carolina, and Utah to help develop policies for building youth apprenticeships.

CareerWise’s Gensler says there is no quick way to scale these programs and estimates it can take two decades to make these programs the norm because it requires generational change.

He says, “With generative AI and the way technology is evolving in the workplace in all industries, it will only be harder for education to keep up with what’s changing. And that gap is going to keep growing. It is incumbent upon our employers to come together and become co-producers of talent, not just consumers of talent.

“Our country depends on it. We will lose the global competitiveness war if we don’t come together and determine how we build up the entire economy, all of our people.”