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This Colorado program is creating new opportunities, and mindsets. Illustration by Walter Vasconcelos

New School

Colorado is launching a first-in-the-country apprenticeship program that’s designed to let students earn it all: a diploma, a degree, and a middle-class wage. The best part? It’s free.

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Two years ago, when then Grandview High School junior Matthew Burnett would join his mother for dinner, he had very little to say. Quiet and reserved, Burnett rarely uttered more than a few sentences. Today, his mom is barely able to get a word in: As one of five apprentices at Centennial’s Mikron Group, which creates and builds customized automation machines for manufacturing lines, Burnett has a lot to talk about, like the machine parts he designed for advanced medical devices or how things are going with his co-workers and fellow apprentices.

Started in the summer of 2016, Mikron’s apprenticeships are now a part of CareerWise. The Colorado initiative, officially launching this month, will place 116 high school juniors in state- and industry-sponsored apprenticeship programs. CareerWise will train students like Burnett in professional fields such as IT, advanced manufacturing, business operations, and financial services while they simultaneously earn their high school diplomas and college credit. (Students are also paid for the hours they work, typically between $10 and $14 an hour.) At the end of the three-year CareerWise program, students can finish earning a four-year degree—in some cases paid for by the companies that have been training them—or walk into a job that pays a middle-class wage (at least $35,000).

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“The apprenticeship has been so beneficial to me socially,” Burnett, now 18, says. “We have so much independence; it lets us grow technologically, but also as adults.” If past research bears out, Burnett will see more than social and professional growth from his CareerWise experience: A 2012 study of apprenticeship programs in 10 states, for example, estimated that young people who participated earned an average of $240,037 more over their careers than their peers who did not take part. And Burnett won’t be hamstrung by student debt. If he elects to continue his college education when he’s completed the apprenticeship (he’ll have earned an associate degree by the time he’s done), Mikron might pay for that, too.

Mikron isn’t an exceptionally benevolent business. The Swiss outfit is one of 40 companies in Colorado that have signed up to train apprentices because they view the program as a solution to Colorado’s current workforce problem: There’s not enough local talent to be able to hire and retain good employees. “It’s pure business,” says Phil Kalin, president and CEO of Pinnacol Assurance, a workers’ compensation insurance firm that will host 25 apprentices this fall. “We hear time and time again that Colorado doesn’t have a pipeline of talented people. This is very much positioned so that there’s a small up-front cost for training, but by the time they get to the end of that training, they’re spun up and you get some real benefit.”

Of course, appealing to a business’ bottom line or parents’ 529 college savings accounts is one thing. Shifting society’s 50-year-old belief that young people need a college degree to be considered successful is quite another.


If you are reading this, there is a good chance you have a bachelor’s degree. You probably own your home and earn an ample salary. (We know this because 84 percent of our subscribers have college degrees, 89 percent own their homes, and their average household income is about $196,000.) You, though, are in the minority in Colorado. Although just more than half of high school graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education, only about a third complete four-year degrees. That wouldn’t necessarily be so alarming if it weren’t for the fact that approximately 65 percent of jobs in the United States require some kind of postsecondary education, though not necessarily a traditional bachelor’s. It doesn’t take a four-year degree to see that the math doesn’t add up for Coloradans—or Colorado’s economy.

In the 1970s, fewer than 20 percent of Americans graduated from a four-year college. Because the vast majority of the jobs in America then didn’t require a bachelor’s degree, the low percentage made sense. But as automation and foreign outsourcing led to a decline in American manufacturing, more parents pushed their children to attend a university—and the college-for-all movement was born.

By the early 2000s, a college degree had become society’s gold standard for accomplishment—despite the sometimes huge debt students incurred and the fact that if they did graduate, they weren’t assured a wage high enough to pay off their loans. (Perhaps, in part, for these reasons, Americans still aren’t graduating college at high rates; only about 15 percent more do than in the 1970s.)

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“People are waking up to the situation that our education system is not aligned to the outcomes we want for our kids and our businesses and our communities,” says Noel Ginsburg, CareerWise’s CEO, and founder and CEO of 37-year-old Denver manufacturing company Intertech Plastics. “What the world wants is a good job, but if you don’t have the skills, you can’t get the job.”

Ginsburg, who is also running for governor as a Democrat, acknowledges he once drank the college-for-all Kool-Aid, but his experiences as a businessman contributed to a shift in his perspective. As technology advanced, he couldn’t find people to fill the positions he needed, college degree or not. Ginsburg wasn’t the only one. A study by the National Skills Coalition estimates that middle-skill jobs account for more than half the labor market, but only 44 percent of the workforce has the adequate skill set to fill them. The people behind CareerWise want to close that gap by providing students with a postsecondary path that combines project-based learning with real-world professional competencies.

Doing so, though, requires overcoming the stigma apprenticeships—once common in America for professions beyond electrical work and plumbing—have as being second class to a college degree, according to Ginsburg. By expanding apprenticeships to professional fields previously considered off-limits to those without bachelor’s degrees, CareerWise hopes to change that notion. “We’re in pilot state now, so we need to be careful,” Ginsburg says. “But it’s clear that this works because other countries do this and do it successfully.”


When Swiss students finish ninth grade, they have an important decision to make. They can continue on an academic path toward a degree and a career in a field such as medicine or law. Or they can opt for a vocational path in which they’ll train in several industries over four years, eventually leaving with applicable skills and certificates that ensure they can attain well-paying jobs in everything from banking to computer programming. Seventy percent of students choose the vocational path. As a result, the country’s youth (15- to 24-year-olds) unemployment rate is 8.6 percent—the lowest in Europe and almost three percent lower than the U.S. rate. “They’re doing it right,” says Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper in February, Hunter Reed wasn’t a part of the delegation of Colorado business, education, and policy thought leaders—including Ginsburg and other members of the Business Experiential-Learning Commission—Hickenlooper sent to Switzerland in 2016. When the 48 members returned to Colorado, they raised $10 million in public and private funds to launch CareerWise, which Hunter Reed is now helping to implement. “This is putting every student on a pathway,” she says. “It’s important that all of education in Colorado is engaged in this work.”

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So far, the number of engaged community stakeholders includes four school districts (Denver, Cherry Creek, Jefferson County, and Grand Junction’s Mesa 51), eight colleges and universities (among them, Colorado State University-Global Campus; Arapahoe, Front Range, and Western Colorado community colleges; and Emily Griffith Technical College), and 40 businesses, all of which have signed on to train at least one apprentice in the first year. Some will have as many as 25.

In their first year, students will typically spend about 16 hours in the workplace and the rest of the week in the classroom. As they progress, they’ll transition to less time studying and more time working—around 32 hours per week in their final years. For their parts, the mentors who supervise apprentices go through intensive CareerWise training to learn how to best navigate the challenges that arise when working with teens; they also have access to CareerWise’s detailed assessment of how each apprentice’s personality traits and competencies match up with company culture.

The selection of the Cherry Creek school district was an intentional attempt to demonstrate that CareerWise isn’t just for populations facing socioeconomic hardships, says Ginsburg. “This is ‘I Have a Dream’ for an entire country,” he says. “This isn’t for some kids; it’s for all kids. You take a young person, put them in a professional environment, and regardless of their background, they will rise to the occasion.”


On June 15, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for the federal government to “provide more affordable pathways to secure, high-paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs.” It’s one of the few things the administrations of both Trump and former President Barack Obama have agreed on: In 2016, Obama’s secretary of labor, Thomas E. Perez, announced the Department of Labor would be awarding $90 million in grants for apprenticeships—or, as he quipped, “college without the debt.” The same week Trump issued his order, Senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill that would provide a tax credit of up to $5,000 per trainee to businesses with apprenticeship programs (several states, including Colorado, already have tax-credit programs).

While politicians on the left and the right have lent their support to these programs (as evinced by the more than 21,000 apprenticeship programs throughout the country), Colorado is the first state to attempt to institute a professional apprenticeship system statewide. There might only be 116 students from four school districts this year, but by 2027, the state hopes to have 20,000 students, or roughly 30 percent of Colorado high school juniors, enrolled in the program. “No one else in the country has tried to pull this off,” Hickenlooper says. “It’s one of the most important things I’ve worked on in my 15 years of public service. We’re taking a big bite—it’s a mouthful, but it’s worthwhile.”

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Hickenlooper envisions CareerWise as a step toward being able to provide apprenticeships for all ages—especially when paired with technology platforms like skillful.com. Skillful, which launched in 2016 as a partnership between the Markle Foundation, LinkedIn, and the state of Colorado, helps provide workers who don’t necessarily have four-year degrees with the skills they need to be successful in today’s job market; in June, Microsoft announced it would invest nearly $26 million to expand the program’s offerings inside and outside the state. The hope is that partnerships like the one between CareerWise and Skillful can help build a kind of lifelong learning system in Colorado.

At Mikron, that’s already happening. Now in his second year as an apprentice, Matthew Burnett helped train some of the company’s summer workers—one of whom just so happened to be a high school engineering teacher.

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