With powerful backers, new Colorado apprenticeship program seeks to build ‘middle class of tomorrow’

A youth apprenticeship program set to launch next fall aims to connect 250 Colorado high school students with paid job training in its first year, providing students with an immediate path to middle-income jobs and helping businesses cultivate the skilled workers they need.

Called CareerWise Colorado, the program is being launched with the help of $5.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In addition, JPMorgan Chase is contributing $4 million to Denver Public Schools to expand its current career exploration program. DPS is one of four school districts that has pledged to take part in the new CareerWise Colorado initiative.

Under the apprenticeship program, participating 11th- and 12th-graders will spend up to half of their time working and the other half in class earning a diploma and credit toward a two-year college degree. They will spend an additional year post-graduation getting more work experience and earning more college credits.

“We are in the process of building a real pipeline of talent that goes from the school, the campus directly to the workplace,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a kickoff event Wednesday morning at the downtown highrise headquarters of DaVita Healthcare Partners.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was among the dignitaries at the event. He called the state a nationwide leader in youth apprenticeship, which he joked is “the other college, except without the debt.”

“What you’re doing through these investments is not only building the workforce of tomorrow,” he said. “You’re building the middle class of tomorrow.”

CareerWise Colorado came together after business leaders — led by Denver-based Intertech Plastics founder Noel Ginsburg — education leaders and state government officials, including Hickenlooper, visited Switzerland in 2015 and early 2016 to study that country’s popular apprenticeship program, in which 70 percent of high schoolers participate.

Ginsburg said what he saw there inspired him to push for a similar program in Colorado.

“We really believe this can be transformational — not just for our students, but for our businesses, as well,” said Ginsburg, who is chairman of the CareerWise Colorado board.

Several Colorado employers have committed to working with apprentices, including DaVita, Intertech Plastics, Pinnacol Assurance and Mikron, a Swiss manufacturer with a location in Englewood. In fact, Mikron has already taken on three apprentices this year.

Selena Elekovic, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, is one of them. Addressing the crowd at Wednesday’s event, she said the experience has helped solidify her desire to become an engineer.

“They showed us how concepts I learned about in class come to life,” Elekovic said.

CareerWise Colorado backers hope to see 20,000 Colorado high school students participate in youth apprenticeships by 2027, a goal they admit will require more funding.

Several local organizations also have donated, including the Daniels Fund, the Mile High United Way and the Walton Family Foundation. The state of Colorado has also contributed. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

CareerWise Colorado would also like more school districts to get involved. Thus far, Denver, Cherry Creek, Jeffco and Mesa County Valley School District 51 have pledged to take part.

Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools plans to use its $4 million grant to expand its existing CareerConnect program from 6,000 students to 9,000 students over the next three years.

Students can start taking foundational classes in 9th grade in one of several “pathways,” including business, technology, creative arts and healthcare. They can also attend a career exploration event — for example spending half a day at a hospital, hearing from doctors, exploring the inside of an ambulance and even doing a dissection experiment.

In 10th grade, students continue taking classes and have the option of connecting with a mentor who works in the field they’re interested in. In 11th grade, they can do an internship. And starting next fall, 100 DPS students will get a chance to participate in the apprenticeship program.

Thus far, DPS’s CareerConnect program has been funded with help from a $7 million federal grant the district won in 2014. But that money will eventually run out, which is why funding to continue and expand CareerConnect is included as part of a proposed $56.6 million mill levy override the district is asking Denver voters to approve in November.

Dozens of DPS students attended today’s event dressed in matching navy blue polo shirts. Quang Nguyen, a senior at Lincoln High School, had a paid summer internship at the Colorado Department of Education, where he worked with the technology team to test the department’s data collection system for potentially devastating errors.

Nguyen, who is in the process of applying to study engineering at a Colorado university next year, said the most important thing he learned was “how to communicate with people, how to know about deadlines and how to tell people you need help.”

Juan Garcia, a Lincoln High junior, interned with the city’s technology services department, updating and replacing computers at Denver libraries. He encouraged other students who might be considering getting involved in the CareerConnect program to take the leap.

Asked what he wants to do after high school, Garcia didn’t hesitate.

“Solve all the world’s problems,” he said.