Interest building for Vail Valley version of Colorado’s CareerWise apprenticeship program

By the numbers

11: Apprenticeships available in the first year of Eagle County’s CareerWise program.

5: Businesses will offer those apprenticeships.

160: Students attended CareerWise apprenticeship events in Edwards and Gypsum.

60 percent: Number of public high school students who take at least one college/high school dual-enrollment class every year.

Sources: Vail Valley Partnership; Eagle County Schools

EDWARDS — Pete Palmgren has been looking for years for some kind of apprenticeship program to bring young workers into his business. One of those programs is getting ready to launch this fall.

Palmgren, the owner of Encore Electric, was one of a few dozen people to attend a Wednesday, Jan. 24, information session about CareerWise Colorado.

That nonprofit group is already operating apprenticeship programs in Denver, Cherry Creek, Jefferson and Grand Junction school districts. Eagle County will be the first rural district to participate.

Students start in their junior year of high school, continue through 12th grade and add another year of education and training, either through delayed graduation or participation in college programs.

“When students are treated like adults, they behave like adults.”Ebony TransouProgram manager, CareerWise Financial Services

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When finished, participants will be ready for professional jobs.

For instance, the positions that will be offered in Eagle County include construction estimator and project coordinator positions, accounting, maintenance and hospitality.

The whole CareerWise program is relatively new and was sparked by founder Noel Ginsburg’s inability to find qualified employees for his own firm, Intertech Plastics.

The Euro Model

Ginsburg became interested in the Swiss and German apprenticeship models and visited Switzerland to learn more.

In 2016, Ginsburg and a Colorado delegation that included Gov. John Hickenlooper visited again.

With help from donors, school districts and several state agencies, CareerWise was born. The project has an ambitious goal: creating 20,000 apprenticeships per year within a decade.

While Eagle County’s program is starting small — a deliberate idea — Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer said the idea at the local level is to have 20 percent of all high school students participating within the next 12 to 15 years.

The apprenticeship model will have students splitting time between school and paid work for those three years. In the third year, participants will be working 32 hours per week. To get into the program, students have to interview for their positions. It’s just like finding a real job because it is a real job.

“It’s a business-centric approach,” Romer told the group.

CareerWise helps businesses develop plans and training programs and helps create plans for individual students.

Apprenticeships don’t work out sometimes, but so far, people have been surprised just how quickly students adapt to adult environments.

“When students are treated like adults, they behave like adults,” CareerWise Financial Services Program Manager Ebony Transou told the group.

Debbie Marquez, the former co-owner of Fiesta’s New Mexican Cafe and Cantina in Edwards, said bringing young apprentices from the ProStart culinary training program into that operation was generally successful.

“It’s wasn’t a problem to have the kids,” Marquez said.

But school is important, too.

Ginsburg told the group that his company can’t shut down one of its injection-molding machines to train a new operator. That training often comes either online or through a community college or four-year college.

That’s why students’ weeks move from more school than work in the first year to more work than school in the third.

Ready to join

While only five businesses will start the program — The Gallegos Corp., RA Nelson, Alpine Bank, Vail Resorts and Can Do Multiple Sclerosis — other business representatives sounded eager to participate.

John Mills, chief financial officer of The Sonnenalp Hotel, said that company is ready and able to jump into the CareerWise model.

“The valley needs a program like this,” Mills said before the session, adding that the valley needs to better tap into its pool of home-grown talent.

Ari Kelkenberg, human resources director for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said she’s also excited about the prospects of bringing apprentices into the operation.

While the Sonnenalp and water district employ a lot of people, Romer said he wants small businesses to play a strong role as CareerWise grows. In Eagle County, 80 percent of all businesses have 10 or fewer employees, Romer said. It’s important to put talented, eager youngsters into those businesses, too.

If CareerWise works as intended, then it can mark a fundamental change in the way this country’s education system works. And, Ginsburg said, Colorado is at the forefront of the movement. Washington state has just started a similar apprenticeship program.

“You can be the spark that lights the fire,” Ginsburg told the group. It isn’t easy, he added, “but as an employer, I’ve been incredibly pleased.”

After the session, Gary Woodworth, CEO of The Gallegos Corp., said he expects participating in CareerWise to benefit his business. That company already has an apprentice program, available to prospects already out of high school.

Woodworth said about 40 percent of those apprentices stick with the company. Some who leave return and then come back more focused.

Michael Brown, of Alpine Bank, said he’s excited to start bringing apprentices into that business.

“This is well thought out,” Brown said. “(Students) are doing real work today, and they have a career when they’re done.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and@scottnmiller.

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