By Lori Ella Miller
While enjoying a healthy, robust economy and low unemployment, Colorado faces a challenging paradox. According to the Colorado Talent 2016 Pipeline Report, by 2020 nearly 74 percent of all jobs within the state will require some type of postsecondary education. At the same time, only 23 percent of Colorado’s graduating high schoolers are earning a college degree. This gap in career-readiness is putting local students at a severe disadvantage as they enter the workforce. At the same time, it’s making it difficult for area employers to attract qualified workers, as well as create a pipeline of steady recruits for the thousands of job opportunities in the state.
In an effort to solve the ongoing problem, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper led a contingent of community and business leaders on a trip to Switzerland to learn about that country’s successful youth apprenticeship system. The visit inspired the launch of Colorado’s first modern apprenticeship program: CareerWise Colorado. This program offers high school students real-world work experience and debt-free postsecondary education.
One of the business leaders accompanying the governor to Switzerland was Phil Kalin, president and CEO of Pinnacol Assurance, a workers’ compensation insurer headquartered in Denver that has been ranked as a Top Workplace by The Denver Post for both 2017 and 2018. At the time, Pinnacol Assurance was evaluating its own workforce development objectives. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, nearly one half of employees in the insurance industry are nearing retirement within the next decade. An analysis of Pinnacol’s own workforce demographics suggests that nearly one-third of its employees will be eligible for retirement by 2019.
Kalin and Pinnacol’s executive team see the CareerWise program as a win-win. By participating in this important public-private partnership, the company supports the community and helps build a strong workforce for its future.
“By hiring apprentices, we can continue to fill our workforce with talented employees who will bring the enthusiasm and innovation required for Pinnacol to thrive,” said Kalin.
Pinnacol Assurance is one of 44 companies partnering with CareerWise Colorado. Statewide, about 100 students have begun apprenticeships and Pinnacol hoststhe largest cohort in the program. Unlike other pilot programs, Pinnacol’s is directed by dedicated staffers who are responsible for communications between internal team stakeholders, apprenticeship recruitment, and advocating for the apprentices—therefore contributing to the success of the larger-scaled program.
One of the staff members is Apprenticeship Program Lead Julie Wilmes. Prior to joining Pinnacol, Wilmes taught public school for 10 years before going on to become an instructional designer.
“I knew this was the perfect fit for me, as I wanted to be a part of workforce development in Colorado,” said Wilmes. “Youth apprenticeships empower young people, their families, and will have a lasting impact on future generations.”
Some 50 Denver-area students threw their proverbial hats into the ring and applied to the Pinnacol Apprenticeship Program, and 20 were selected. According to Wilmes, Pinnacol hired a diverse group of students. Approximately 80 percent of the participants are students of color, which is consistent with the demographics of participating Denver schools. She added that the group is also equally split between genders. Pinnacol has already committed to onboarding up to 10 additional apprentices in 2019.
One of the best parts of the apprenticeship model is that it is accessible to all students on track to graduate from high school, regardless of socio-economic status.
“CareerWise’s modern youth apprenticeship program benefits students from any background. Regardless of demographics, students learn better when they have a real world environment in which they can apply their classroom lessons,” said CareerWise Colorado Director of Human Resources Strategy & Implementation Kathleen Brenk. “Through this business-led, student-centered model, any high school student can benefit from debt-free college credit and be career-ready when they decide to work full time in their field—whether that’s immediately after the apprenticeship or after further education.”
Over the next few years, the apprentices will rotate through Pinnacol’s departments, engage with guest speakers, shadow employees, perform productive hands-on work, and hone skills needed for a career in the insurance industry — ideally at Pinnacol.
In addition, the students earn an apprentice wage, receive retirement benefits and time-off, participate in the company’s bonus program, and are eligible for performance-based raises. Pinnacol also covers tuition costs for some postsecondary education and an insurance industry certification.
The CareerWise Colorado model is mutually beneficial for both the apprentices, as well as the businesses. Companies realize a positive return on their investment not only from the value of the apprentices’ work, but also from the impact it has on employees. That is certainly the case for Pinnacol.
According to Wilmes, “The program is a having a positive effect on morale. Our team members are growing as leaders and mentors. They feel needed, and love sharing their expertise and knowledge.”
The Pinnacol staffers, who serve as subject matter experts, train and coach the apprentices who acquire new proficiencies in team work, operations, business practices and accountability. It’s real hands-on work. The apprentices are involved in facilitating projects, developing high-level communications, planning events, and assisting operations in the Underwriting and Claims departments.
“They are taking on roles and responsibilities that free up full-time, salaried staff to focus on the more technical aspects of their jobs,” remarked Pinnacol Apprenticeship Program Manager Mark Tapy.
High school junior and CareerWise Colorado apprentice Byonce Reyna is currently working in Pinnacol’s Communications department. Reyna pens a monthly blog for Pinnacol’s intranet that has become one of the most read articles by company employees.
Eric Miller, a high school junior on the Continuous Improvement and Lean team is gaining the skills to facilitate team meetings and help team members reach their goals. He is actively working on a project to enhance the efficiency of communications between CareerWise, schools, and businesses. His work on the evaluation of the communication process will have an impact on Pinnacol, as well as other participating companies.
Wilmes believes the CareerWise model could have a profound impact on all industries in Colorado and nationwide. “Businesses must get involved in workforce development – it’s crucial,” she said. “Companies can get apprentices in the door and train them for what your company needs now and in the future.”
At the completion of their apprenticeships, these students will finish high school with transferable college credits, at least one postsecondary credential, three years of work experience, and in many cases, an associate degree.
“I would recommend this program to my fellow students because working in a professional environment helps you to see and understand the complexity and struggles in not only the business world, but how business integrates itself into our everyday lives,” said Isabelle Benton, a 17-year-old apprentice in Pinnacol’s Special Investigations Unit. “It teaches you a sense of responsibility that you don’t really get to understand until you have the freedom to do so. In an apprenticeship, you start doing things on your own and away from the classroom environment…you are doing a job with adults and you have to think and understand things like they do. This program has changed my life.”
# # #