Colorado embraces “apprenticeships,” re-tooling college to meet company needs

Metropolitan State University of Denver senior Deborah Son began her studies with a focus on art history, her passion.  But now at 24, weighing workforce economics, she has shifted to accounting. And she’s gaining credit toward her degree by preparing tax returns for low-income people.

She’s one of thousands around the nation who’ve embraced on-the-job learning through “apprenticeships” incorporated into their higher education. At MSU of Denver, an open-access school downtown with enrollment around 18,000, meeting workforce needs has become a priority.

Companies including Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin helped design course curriculums to mold properly-trained workers. For Son, the shift from art to accounting with practical work experience led to a job lined up for after she graduates – with the international firm KPMG.

Yet her love of art and aesthetics “is always there,” she said. “I’m always open to going to art museums.”

President Joe Biden’s administration, with support from Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado’s senators, is promoting apprenticeships as part of a re-tooling of higher education to align more closely with national workforce needs.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, touring MSU Denver’s industry-oriented advanced manufacturing labs with state leaders on Wednesday, announced that the federal government will invest $113 million to expand on-the-job learning nationwide as part of college studies.

“Colorado is leading the way,” Walsh said, nodding to Polis and praising MSU Denver president Janine Davidson and Colorado higher education director Angie Paccione for their leadership.

Higher education and workforce training in many ways “are the same,” Walsh said in an interview, touting strategic workforce partnerships schools form with companies. “You have community colleges all across America that have the network and the ability to educate people and partner with businesses to create better career pathways,” he said.

Federal grants to states for expanding for apprenticeships, including an array of what used to be called internships and other opportunities, can be applied in any sector certified by the labor department, Walsh said.

For companies, apprentices from colleges can bring benefits at a time when many managers lament they cannot attract enough workers. MSU Denver senior Steven Finch, 26, during his three-year apprenticeship with Ball Aerospace in Westminster, spotted a cost-cutting opportunity in production of an aircraft component. Rubber material that held antennas was dirty, poorly-sized, and cost $100 too much per unit, Finch found. He proposed a supply chain fix and, receiving course credit for his efforts, worked in a school industrial lab building a better rubber product that could save Ball more than $1 million a year.

It helped Finch secure a job with Ball for after he graduates in May.

During a discussion with a half dozen student apprentices, Gov. Polis asked them to “think about your former high school peers. Why didn’t more of them take this route?”

Some said peers assumed college would be unaffordable. And others reckoned peers weren’t aware of how on-the-job opportunities could put them on pathways that lead directly from college to careers.

“Workforce training is a big part of what higher education does,” Polis said in an interview. “There’s also a value to an interdisciplinary approach and critical thinking and other skills that are very much part of the fabric of higher education,” he said.

“There are going to be people who study art and there are going to be accountants. It’s really up to kids what they want to do. Some of that’s about how much they want to earn and the lifestyle they want to live. I mean, you may be able to earn more as an accountant than as an art historian.”

A roundtable discussion at Metro State ...
A roundtable discussion at Metropolitan State University of Denver on Feb. 23, 2022. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh joined Gov. Jared Polis, and Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, on campus for a tour and roundtable discussion with apprentices from a wide range of industries, including construction, hospitality, advanced manufacturing, childcare, and healthcare.

Sen. John Hickenlooper wanted to know what courses apprentices had taken that were unrelated to their emerging career paths. Some said elective classes — including English, sign language and abnormal psychology – proved unexpectedly useful during their apprenticeships.

Recalling his days majoring in geology at the private, liberal arts Wesleyan University, Hickenlooper mused after the discussion that “there were courses better than electronic music that I could have taken.”

Sen. Michael Bennet raised concerns he said he hears often “that what students learn in school isn’t going to help them pay back loans.” A majority of students at MSU Denver work to help finance their studies, in addition to the apprenticeships they pursue to gain on-the-job experience for credit toward their degrees.

Students told Bennet financial help from schools had made their higher ed affordable. But senior Keith Alex added that working students often make a difficult calculus allocating time for their coursework: “Can I sustain good grades?” Alex said. Financial aid eases burdens, he said, “and once that burden is off of you your grades are going to go great.”

For Alex, an apprenticeship with Denver Health allowed him to explore opportunities in health care — “really helpful to guide me to what I want to do.”

Bennet concluded, as leaders were leaving the MSU Denver campus, that “how well you’re going to do in schools, the grades you’re going to get, is directly related to the pressure you feel about the financing.”

And he wrestled with choices hard-pressed students must make. “My personal advice as a father is that you should study what you’re passionate about,” he said.

“Not every person has to go into advanced manufacturing. Some people are going to be philosophers. But we need to make sure people understand what the  math looks like when they are going into college and what the math looks like when they’re coming out.”