Naarai Navarro lived a double life as a Denver high school student and a claims-agent-in-training at Pinnacol Assurance, the Denver-based workers’ compensation insurance agency.
In the mornings, the 16-year-old attended classes at John F. Kennedy High School. But come afternoon, she transformed into a working professional as a registered apprentice.
In addition to being taught the ins and outs of the insurance industry, Navarro mastered career skills like composing business emails, public speaking and phone etiquette — and she got paid while doing so, earning as she learned. Pinnacol even enrolls their young apprentices in Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association program, meaning the teen was already saving for retirement.
At the end of Navarro’s three-year apprenticeship, Pinnacol hired her right out of high school to a full-time position as a bilingual business development representative. By 20, she said she’d saved enough money to buy a house with her sister and brother-in-law. Next, she’s saving up for a new car with aspirations to one day utilize her business knowledge to open her own Mexican restaurant.
“An apprenticeship will change your life,” said Navarro, now 21. “As a high schooler, I didn’t think insurance sounded that interesting, but look at all I’ve done. I’m learning so much, and now I know there is much more to the job than I thought.”
Colorado’s Pinnacol Assurance is looked at nationally — the U.S. Department of Labor recently visited — as a model of a successful youth apprenticeship program. While the program is among the largest and most robust apprenticeship programs in the state, it is just one of several hundred opportunities for Coloradans of all demographics to gain on-the-job workforce experience and get paid while learning.
As of Monday, Colorado recorded 5,826 active apprentices, 287 active apprenticeship programs and 473 employers participating in these programs, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Some of these are youth-focused apprenticeships while others accept people of all ages.
The state is investing in apprenticeship programs, heralding them as the future of workforce development — so much so that in 2021, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law establishing the State Apprenticeship Agency, which is set to launch this July.
The agency is intended to:
- Be the primary point of contact with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship
- Accelerate new apprenticeship program growth
- Oversee apprenticeship programs, including registration, certification, quality assurance and compliance with federal laws
While trades like construction are still the bread and butter of apprenticeship programs, experts said these types of on-the-job learning opportunities are being built to attract and retain an evolving talent pipeline in a number of industries such as health care, education, information technology and business services.
“These aren’t your grandpa’s apprenticeships,” said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Noel Ginsburg, founder and CEO of Colorado-based nonprofit CareerWise, believes apprenticeship programs are more than a philanthropic endeavor or workforce bolster.
Ginsburg, who has spent his career advocating for and setting up apprenticeships, said paid training opportunities should play a key role in mending the division, anger and uncertainty festering in the country.
“If we don’t change the system meaningfully, which apprenticeship does, I am really concerned about the future not just of our state but our country,” Ginsburg said. “Inequity will hold a country back and create some of the discourse we see politically. If people don’t see hope, if they don’t see a way of opportunity, then we end up with where this country is. It’s not that apprenticeship is a silver bullet, but a foundational piece.”
What’s an apprenticeship?
People often conflate apprenticeships with internships, but Katherine Keegan, director of the labor department’s Office of the Future of Work, said that’s a misconception.
Registered apprenticeships, Keegan said, are much more regulated than internships and must meet certain requirements to qualify. All apprenticeships must be a mix of on-the-job training and classroom instruction, provide payment, offer successful apprentices nationally recognized credentials in their field, and supply mentorship.
“Crafted well, apprenticeships can be an equity strategy because they address the need for debt-free labor credentials,” said Brent Parton, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.
While an apprenticeship can be an alternative to college, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, said Chris Heuston, director of apprenticeships at Front Range Community College.
Front Range is recognized by the federal Labor Department as an apprenticeship ambassador, meaning the community college system will support the administration’s goals in modernizing, diversifying and expanding apprenticeships in the state, Heuston said.
The system’s campuses offer apprenticeship opportunities in manufacturing, technology, tree care and health care positions such as pharmacy tech, medical assisting and surgical technology.
Front Range partners with local industries like hospitals and tree maintenance businesses for a combination of classroom learning and on-the-job training for people of all ages and backgrounds, Heuston said.
Many of the employers Front Range partners with help their apprentices pay for tuition. In the past three years, the community college’s industry partners have paid about half a million dollars toward apprentices’ tuition, Heuston said. Fewer than 7% of the nearly 400 apprentices that Front Range has trained since 2019 needed to take out student loans to support their training, Heuston said.
“With the rising cost of higher education, I think individuals are looking for alternatives for how they can be trained in an occupation,” said Renée Welch, director of collegiate apprenticeships at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Apprenticeships, Parton said, also address equity gaps when it comes to the often intangible but critical benefits of social capital — providing access to professional networking through mentorship.
“Unpaid internships have made it challenging to distribute workforce experience equitably,” Parton said.
Apprenticeship programs are typically years-long and, in addition to payment, apprentices are federally required to receive a wage increase at least once. The wages themselves vary depending on the company.
At Pinnacol Assurance, an apprentice’s starting wage is $18.24 an hour with annual performance-based raises. The youth apprentices also receive a benefits package that includes Pinnacol’s employee incentive program, PERA retirement and paid time off.
“It’s not just philanthropy,” said Liz Johnson, director of public relations at Pinnacol. “It’s not this thing we like to do because it feels nice. It’s part of our recruitment pipeline.”
Diversifying the field
Pinnacol focuses on the youth apprenticeship model, recruiting teens in high school — in partnership with their school districts and postsecondary institutions — to begin their careers while balancing their academic lives.
Apprentice Brandi Valdez-Montoya, 20, sat in her Pinnacol cubicle last week stationed across from the futuristic pod where apprentices can cozy up in a heated reclining chair for a power nap. Valdez-Montoya works for the insurance company’s special investigations team, running background reports and collecting medical records, police records and more to investigate people’s claims.
“I’m interested in criminal justice, but outside of positions like a cop or a judge, I didn’t really know what else existed,” Valdez-Montoya said. “I had no idea this job existed, and I am trusted to deal with sensitive information, and I’ve learned so much.”
Pinnacol’s apprenticeship program was born out of a trip to Switzerland taken by Pinnacol leadership and CareerWise’s Ginsburg several years ago, during which Ginsburg showed Colorado business leaders how the Swiss model of youth apprenticeships helps sustain that nation’s workforce.
Ginsburg founded a custom plastics business during his senior year at the University of Denver in 1980 but had trouble finding manufacturing workers. The businessman approached Montbello High School, forming a lasting partnership with Denver Public Schools to integrate traditional schooling with industry training, and never looked back.
When Ginsburg traveled abroad to study Switzerland’s apprenticeship model, he was struck by its efficacy. Seventy percent of Swiss people start out with an apprenticeship that begins in the 11th grade, he said.
Although apprenticeship utilization rates in the U.S. fall well below European countries, the 3,143 new U.S. apprenticeships established in the fiscal year 2020 were a 73% increase over the number that existed in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The biggest challenge we face now that we have examples of this working is really businesses taking this on at scale,” Ginsburg said. “It’s still a foreign language to most businesses. Thinking of taking a 15- or 16-year-old into your business when you have a 16-year-old at home who won’t listen to you… but the reality is young people do want to be treated as adults and respond well.”
CareerWise helps employers design apprenticeship programs for their needs, Ginsburg said. The state also offers grant and funding opportunities to help pay for apprenticeship programs in Colorado, according to the labor department.
Since Pinnacol’s apprenticeship program began in 2017, the company has enrolled 63 apprentices trained by more than 50 coaches — employees from different departments who signed up to be mentors — with the support of two dedicated apprentice program staffers.
Twelve apprentices have been hired at Pinnacol full-time and 83% of those hires have been from BIPOC backgrounds, the company said. Nearly half of the partiicpants in Pinnacol’s program finish it and go into the workforce or opt for college or another opportunity after two years.
According to the Labor Department, 93% of apprentices nationwide who complete their programs retain employment, with an average annual salary of $77,000.
Nationally, apprenticeships remain heavily white and male, with more than 75% of U.S. apprentices identifying as white and just over 10% of apprentices identifying as women, the U.S. Department of Labor said.
Diversifying the apprentice sphere — broadening it from the traditional trades and attracting and retaining a more diverse candidate pool — is critical for the future of the programs nationwide, Parton said.
Diverse apprentices like Navarro are proof of how revolutionary paid training opportunities can be.
Navarro grew up in a big family in Denver, living paycheck to paycheck.
“I always saw my parents struggling, and I didn’t want that,” Navarro said. “I wanted to have my own things and provide for myself.”
While Navarro was an apprentice, she gave Community College of Denver a shot, but decided she was learning more in her apprenticeship than she was in her college courses — with the bonus that she was getting paid and receiving benefits.
“Apprenticeships are a big commitment,” Navarro said. “I’m living a very different life than my peers, but I’ve accomplished so much already and, with the skills I’ve acquired, can keep going further.”
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