Colorado Launches Apprenticeship Program Based on Swiss Model

Are high school apprenticeships a new path to a college degree? Some students and business owners think so. (Photo: seyomodo/Shutterstock)

With college graduates unable to find jobs and drowning in debt, today's high schoolers are taking a closer look at the educational and vocational pathways that will get them from school to work. For students in Colorado, those pathways have merged in a new apprenticeship program that is changing the way teens learn.

The Colorado program is called CareerWise, and it's modeled after the way kids prepare for the workforce in Switzerland. Swiss kids have a choice to make after the ninth grade: continue with traditional academics in pursuit of careers in fields such as medicine or business, or take a vocational path in which they can train in several professions and finish high school with skills and certifications in anything from computer programming to retail management to banking. As kids in Switzerland get closer to finishing high school, a rotation of school, work-based courses and work gets more and more specialized to match their interests and talents. With a youth unemployment rate that is the lowest in the world, many consider the Swiss model to be the gold standard for both students and business.

In 2016, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper sent a delegation of business and education professionals to Switzerland to learn how to implement that model back home. The result is CareerWise, the nation's first apprenticeship program that helps kids earn a high school diploma and a college degree while getting paid for their efforts.

This year under CareerWise, 116 high school seniors and juniors in Colorado will train in professional apprenticeships in fields such as information technology, advanced manufacturing, business operations and financial services. After three years of apprenticeship, they will have not only a high school diploma but also an associates degree in their field, with the option of continuing to college to earn a four-year degree or staying in their position with an advanced salary. Most importantly, they will be paid around $10-$15 per hour while they're working toward those degrees, so they will finish high school and have a head start toward college by plumping up their bank accounts.

And the big winners are ...

The benefit to students and educators is obvious, but don't think the business owners in this model are just in it for the good deed. They're taking part because it promises to be good for their bottom line. Employers in Colorado and around the country have been complaining for years that there just aren't enough skilled employees to fill their positions. CareerWise acts as a pipeline directing eager-to-learn kids directly into the workforce. By the time apprentices finish with their program, they have skills tailor-made for the marketplace.

“Generally, our MO has been we want kids with four-year degrees," Phil Kalin, the CEO of Pinnccol Assurance, a worker's compensation insurance provider, told the Denver Post. "It became really clear, though, that it wasn’t about something special they learned in college — it’s that they’ve showed motivation, they’ve showed stick-to-itiveness, they’re curious. I realized that we could be training many of the skills if we found the right kids."

By 2027, Colorado hopes to have as many as 20,000 high schoolers enrolled in the CareerWise program. In the meantime, states around the country are keeping a sharp eye on Colorado's program.

"Apprenticeship is the other college — except without the debt," former U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez told the Post.

If it works in Colorado, you can bet it will be coming to a school near you very soon.