Colorado apprenticeship program turns the factory floor into a classroom

MILES O’BRIEN: Next, we continue our series
Rethinking College, with a look at the nation’s first statewide youth apprenticeship program. As Hari Sreenivasan reports, it offers high
school and college credit and pays students for their work. This story is part of our weekly education
segment, Making the Grade. HARI SREENIVASAN: In Colorado, this factory
floor may be the classroom of the future. MAN: This goes into that hopper, gets melted
back into a liquid, as it goes through the machine. HARI SREENIVASAN: And these students may be
hired for prime jobs before they even finish high school. Manufacturers like Intertech Plastics in Denver
are facing critical shortages of skilled labor, and they want to teach teens how to work for
them. NOEL GINSBURG, CEO, Intertech Plastics: We
couldn’t support the growth in both facilities because we didn’t have the people. HARI SREENIVASAN: Noel Ginsburg is the CEO. NOEL GINSBURG: From the day I started the
company to this day, the biggest challenge we have was around having the right people
with the skills we needed to grow the business. We have 40,000 unfilled tech jobs in Colorado. College is not cheap, right? So, if you could earn up to 40 to 50 credit
hours for college by working in a business like this, and get paid, and get your high
school diploma, who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s a pretty cool deal. HARI SREENIVASAN: Colorado’s governor, John
Hickenlooper, is behind the idea. GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), Colorado: We are one
of the fastest growing economies in the country. You can’t sustain that without talent. And it is a global competition for talent
now. And a lot of that talent, it’s not Ph.D.s
and the superstars. A lot of that talent is middle skills. HARI SREENIVASAN: Partnering with the state,
Ginsburg founded CareerWise, an apprenticeship program that links Colorado industries and
school districts. Starting this year, high school Jr.s and seniors
can spend three school days a week as on-the-job apprentices, earning classroom credit and
a paycheck. NOEL GINSBURG: We’d like to have 230 career
paths that will, in 10 years, serve 20,000 young people in a whole host of careers, from
banking and finance to advanced manufacturing. HARI SREENIVASAN: Colorado leaders believe
they are in the forefront of addressing what economists call a middle skills gap, unfilled
jobs that require more than high school, but less than a four-year college degree. GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: For more than 30 years,
we took on this challenge that we were going to make sure every kid went to college, and
this was the only solution. But we have barely nudged the needle in terms
of how many kids actually go to college and graduate. And in that sense, I think it’s been a failure. NOEL GINSBURG: I was part of that mantra,
saying everybody should go to college. The reality of it is, that’s never going to
happen. In this country, what the percentages? Twenty-eight percent, at best, will get a
four-year degree in this country. So, we’re essentially telling everybody else
that they can’t be successful in our economy and in our country. And it’s simply not true. HARI SREENIVASAN: After graduating high school,
the program offers apprentices full-time employment and financial support toward community colleges
degrees. The pitch convinced visiting high school student
Kevin Roquemore to add another choice to his career path. So, what are you going to do after you graduate
high school? What are you thinking right now? KEVIN ROQUEMORE, Student: So I have a plan
A, plan B. Plan A hopefully is to go to the Major Leagues, just if I don’t go to college,
play baseball. HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, I don’t know your athletic
skill, but let’s just say the baseball career stops in high school. What are you going to do? KEVIN ROQUEMORE: My plan B was to be in manufacturing
and engineering. HARI SREENIVASAN: Alejandro Garcia’s parents
were thrilled to hear he was accepted into the program. WOMAN (through translator): We preferred him
to attend university. That’s what we wanted. But when we heard of this opportunity, we
jumped straight on it. HARI SREENIVASAN: But will schools become
training grounds for industry? Will apprentices miss out on crucial classroom
learning? The idea that critical thinking and kind of
the long-term life lessons that you pick up being in an academic environment, those are
necessary too. NOEL GINSBURG: They are, but what I believe
is that those skills can be learned in the workplace, because the workplace is real,
and you have different personalities. I think soft skills are better taught in business,
not in the classroom. HARI SREENIVASAN: Looking to fine-tune their
apprentice program, Colorado leaders traveled to Switzerland, where 40 percent of companies
offer student apprenticeships. MAN: So, why apprenticeship? Swiss firms do not only train because it’s
a tradition. There is an economic rationale. MAN: It is an investment into young people
for making sure that we have a low unemployment rate. HARI SREENIVASAN: Suzi LeVine, former U.S.
ambassador to Switzerland, hosted the delegation and is now working with Colorado’s CareerWise
apprentice program. SUZAN LEVINE, Former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland:
We’re at the front end of an apprenticeship renaissance in the United States. When you look back at Hamilton and Franklin,
started out as apprentices. In Switzerland, two-thirds of young people
go into apprenticeship. Their youth unemployment is just 3.2 percent. We need that here in the United States. GAIL MELLOW, President, New York La Guardia
Community College: I think what Colorado is doing is a great first step. HARI SREENIVASAN: Gail Mellow is the president
of New York’s La Guardia Community College, which also offers programs that link high
school students to middle skills. While enthusiastic about Colorado’s new program,
Mellow cautions that Europe and the United States have very different social structures. GAIL MELLOW: The challenge is that if we model
those steps exactly at what happens in Switzerland, we don’t have the robust safety net. So, our robust health benefits, the living
wages, those are often not part of American businesses. HARI SREENIVASAN: And she’s concerned that
apprenticeships could lead to short-lived jobs that improved technology could eventually
wipe out. That it’s not a dead-end job? GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: It’s a job that’s going
to lead to a better job, that will lead to a better job. That’s what we used to call a career. HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, Colorado’s apprenticeships
are financed by federal and state funds, business and philanthropy. But the future plan is for industry to provide
the biggest investment. In Denver, for the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari

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