More than ‘just a job:’ Eagle County companies combat the talent deficit with high school apprenticeships ￼
Step into the Alpine Bank branches in Eagle and Avon with questions about your finances, and you will be met with the polished customer service and learned advice of 19-year-old tellers Andrea Ramos and Marlene Rios. Pick up stone at the Gallegos Corporation stone yard in Gypsum and your transaction will be processed by 19-year-old Luis Avila with administrative support from his 17-year-old coworker Ev Zaruba.
All around the valley, companies are filling critical staff positions by hiring high school students through the CareerWise Colorado youth apprenticeship program. This innovative program, designed to emulate successful apprenticeship models used in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, gives students the option to begin working and training for compensation at a local company while simultaneously completing their high school degree.
Wednesday: More than ‘just a job:’ Eagle County companies combat the talent deficit with high school apprenticeships
Thursday: ‘Keep grinding it out:’ Making it in the Vail Valley is also tough for builders, bankers
Friday: Working in the new West: Vail’s economic past, present creates an interesting case study for towns planning the future
Vail Valley Partnership, the valley-wide chamber of commerce, brought CareerWise Colorado to Eagle County in 2017 as one of the first apprenticeship programs of its kind in the United States, and the first attempt to implement a CareerWise program in a rural region.
The program is a new way to address a decade-long talent deficit in Eagle County in which job openings have consistently outpaced unemployed workers since 2013, excluding the 2020 pandemic year.
According to the latest data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the total labor force participation rate — or proportion of the working-age population that is employed or actively looking for work — is 76.7% in Eagle County, compared to 62.2% nationally. At the same time, the unemployment rate in Eagle County is 2.8%, compared to 3.7% nationally.
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Year to date in Eagle County for 2022, the average number of job postings per month is over four times the number of unemployed individuals, with an average of 4,130 job postings and 1,002 unemployed workers. These numbers show that there is a limited pool of working-age locals to be drawn into the workforce, a trend that Mark Hoblitzell, the regional business services coordinator for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said he expects to continue.
“Eagle County has been in a talent deficit for much of the last 10 years, and likely longer given when online job postings became predominant,” Hoblitzell said. “Given demographic trends, it is likely that outside of disruptive events, Eagle County employers will be operating in a labor shortage situation for years to come.”
The natural reaction to this imbalance would be to attract outside workers to the valley, but the local housing crisis inhibits this approach. Instead of looking outside of the valley, CareerWise has created a new pipeline that enables local businesses to tap into high schools as a wellspring of talent, where employees come automatically equipped with homes, a deep connection to the local community — and bright new ideas.
At the same time, it maximizes the potential of the 16-24 age group in the labor force, setting them on career tracks instead of the part-time, often dead-end jobs that typically characterize teenage employment.
Christy Beidel, the CareerWise Customer Success Manager for Eagle County, is responsible for overseeing the relationships between employers and apprentices.
“We need people to fill these jobs and this is a creative way that we can try to build that employee pipeline with our youth,” Beidel said. “A lot of these students already have housing, they have their family support, they’re here to stay. They’re young, they’re bright, they’re creative, they’re sponges, they want to learn and they want to move up.”
The apprenticeship model is a new concept in the United States, but across the Atlantic, many European countries — such as Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom — have long-established career training programs that create a direct pathway from the classroom to the workforce without requiring higher education. Switzerland has a particularly robust apprenticeship system, one in which 70% of students and 40% of all Swiss companies participate.
In 2015, Erik Williams, the director of community development for the Vail Valley Partnership, visited Switzerland with a group led by the governor to learn about how to develop apprenticeship programs. Existing apprenticeships in the United States tend to be concentrated in urban areas, but Williams saw an opportunity to fill a glaring employment hole in Eagle County.
“We define it financially as a $40,000 to $45,000 job,” Williams said. “That is the spot in our community where we are lacking massively because people leave at that time. The entire intent of this is not to boost the entry-level labor pool, but that next level of management, and to build that into the community from the local people who have systems in place and an understanding of this value that we need.”
The CareerWise program in Eagle County has placed 43 students with 32 local businesses over the course of its five years in operation, one of which was cut short due to COVID-19. In 2022, CareerWise had its highest participation rate to date, with 45 companies posting jobs for apprentices and 16 students selected through the program, up from 9 in 2021.
Not every student who interviews for an apprenticeship will get one, a process that Beidel said directly reflects the realities of a job hunt in the adult world.
“We do not want to paint a picture that they’re going to definitely get a job, so if a business comes in and doesn’t see a good fit, then the business does not have to hire,” Beidel said. “We never want to put a student into a job or environment that’s not going to be a good fit.”
Beidel said that the ultimate goal is to reach similar rates of participation as those seen in Switzerland and normalize apprenticeship as a path to employment and personal development. So far 75 local businesses have expressed interest in offering positions in 2023, and with over 600 students enrolled as seniors at Eagle County public high schools, a high rate of engagement could make a significant dent in persistent labor shortages.
“I feel like there are enough businesses, enough jobs and enough students that are going to want this, that we could essentially get 75% of our high school kids having the opportunity to go into an apprenticeship,” Beidel said. “The value that these young minds get from it is really, truly amazing as far as the experience, the hands-on learning, the communication, and the networking to where when they graduate, they literally flourish within the community.”
More than ‘just a job’
Marlene Rios and Andrea Ramos are 19-year-old, first-generation Coloradans who accepted full-time positions as tellers at Alpine Bank straight out of high school.
Both grew up in the county’s mobile home parks, raised by single mothers who supported their families on low-income jobs, and their households needed them to contribute financially starting at a young age.
“She had to scrape by, so we didn’t go out a lot. It’s kind of the sacrifice you make for living here,” Ramos said. “Even now, my dad isn’t around, so it’s me and my mom and my brother who give up 60% of our paycheck to pay the bills.”
For most working high schoolers, available employment is limited to part-time jobs that pay the bills but offer little opportunity for personal advancement. Instead, the CareerWise program enabled Rios and Ramos to simultaneously pursue their academics, bring home a paycheck and build a foundation in the banking industry.
“I would have most likely just worked fast food up to the point where I decided to try out another new job, but being able to work with CareerWise, I was able to transition away from working in fast food like regular teenagers do,” Rios said. “Being able to work at the bank has allowed me to see a different side of the world, to learn how to be professional and especially how to manage my life, my finances.”
Apprentices split their weeks between the classroom and the office, spending around three days a week earning credit for their work experience and two finishing the core classes needed to earn their diplomas. The program launched on a three-year timeline that included two years of the school-work split and one year of full-time work after graduation, but last year it transitioned to a two-year timeline that starts the senior year of high school.
Apprentices can earn up to $18 per hour for their on-the-job work, and by the end of the program, the average apprentice earns between $40,000 and $50,000, a professional certification, and any relevant certifications or college courses that the company is willing to support. Despite the condensed timeline of the two-year program, Williams expects this income number to stay consistent by the use of a more efficient training schedule.
Rios said that having responsibilities at work and school was demanding, and she had to hone her time management skills in order to be successful. But after completing the program, she is now entering adulthood with a sense of control in her career and lifestyle in the valley.
“I feel like all my life I have been planning and thinking, ‘This is what I have to do next, and then it’s this next step,’ and I’m kind of getting to a point where it’s like, ‘OK time to also enjoy life,'” Rios said. “I’ve finally been able to balance work, school, plus family and having fun at the same time. So I feel like these past years, it was rough for sure — going to school and working at the same time — but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Apprentices also receive direct career support from supervisors at the company, as well as Beidel, to help ease the transition into a working environment. Ramos said that in the beginning, she didn’t know the basics of professionalism, wearing ripped jeans to the office and using casual dialogue like “dude” when interacting with customers.
When she found herself struggling in the workplace, she said that Beidel and the CareerWise support system were there to counsel her and help her navigate through challenges and unknowns. Now, Ramos said she’s proud of her performance at work and is looking for ways to grow at the company.
“It’s pretty cool because you can start as a teller, and you think you’re going to be a teller forever, but that’s not true. You can be whatever you want,” Ramos said. “I feel like I’m here, and I have so much more to go. I don’t think I’ll ever stop until I’m, I don’t know, maybe a president or something. I would love to be the boss. I think that would be cool, to make the decisions.”
Juliana Herr is the senior vice president of operations for Alpine Bank in Eagle County, and said that she has watched the apprentices transform from quiet 16-year-olds into confident, assertive employees.
“At 19, they understand finance. How many 19-year-olds can say and do what these guys have done?” Herr said. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity for our high school students and for the community to have people that know this community and can contribute and stay here and don’t feel like they need to go someplace else to earn a living. We want to keep these hidden gems here in the valley.”
Breaking down classroom walls
Rather than constraining skills development to the classroom, apprenticeships offer students an expanded environment in which to learn. For former apprentice Luis Avila, this opportunity was transformative for his high school experience.
“Luis was a child who was eager to learn, but he absolutely hated school,” said his mother, Faviola Alderete, in a CareerWise parent highlight. “My husband and I got to the point where every other day, Luis was begging us to let him stay home. We couldn’t figure out how to motivate him, despite our own passion for education.”
As a junior in high school, Avila started working at the local stone masonry company Gallegos Corporation as a business operations apprentice. Gallegos created a rotational program for its apprentices that allows them to try a new role every month, getting a feel for each department in the company before committing to one that they want to develop in, and Avila quickly thrived in the workplace environment.
“When I first started high school, I didn’t really find anything interesting in what they were teaching me. I felt like I just wasn’t using my time wisely,” Avila said. “I’m a person that likes to explore and find new things, and that is the opportunity that Gallegos has given me… it definitely took weight off my shoulders because it gave me a lot more confidence.”
When his apprenticeship ended, Avila chose to accept a full-time position as a supply clerk at the stone yard, and Gallegos CEO Gary Woodworth said that with the high performance he displayed at work, Avila was wanted by team leaders all over the company.
“With the experience and the exposure that he got around the company, when it was time for Luis to come on full-time, he had three departments that all wanted him to work for them,” Woodworth said. “I feel he’s a great asset to the company fresh out of high school.”
Avila is now working towards his real estate license while taking business courses at Colorado Mountain College, and said he hopes to apply his experiences at Gallegos when running his own company someday.
“I went into this company to learn about business so I could start my own business,” Avila said. “It really expanded my mind into learning new things and figuring out how they did their company, and opened up a lot that I can do if I just put in the work.”
Gallegos was one of the first companies in the valley to participate in the CareerWise apprenticeship program, and has recently hired its third apprentice, Eagle Valley high school senior Ev Zaruba, who began the rotational program this fall semester. Woodworth said that whether the students choose to stay at Gallegos or move on to new chapters, they consider every apprenticeship a success and plan to continue engagement with CareerWise for years to come.
“We believe in giving youth in our communities an opportunity, and when this structured program was put in front of us, that allowed us an avenue to do that,” Woodworth said. “I myself, when I was Luis and Ev’s age in high school, did a work credit program, and having taken a similar path — to be able to work, earn, and finish my education — this program just brought everything together to allow us to give back to the community.”
The beginning of the road
Finding sustainable and fulfilling jobs in the place that they call home is a valuable outcome for students who participate in the program, but Beidel said that full-time employment is not the metric by which she and Williams measure the success of the CareerWise apprenticeships. The focus is on exploration and skill development, and even those students who choose not to stay with the program or accept a full-time job are making more informed decisions about their path in life than they would have otherwise.
“That’s what I love about the program, it’s not this one size fits all. It really incorporates everyone’s needs and everyone’s interests,” Beidel said. “It gives them that extra year to build those skills and understand the path that they want to take, whether it’s where they are in their apprenticeship or whether it’s a totally, completely different pathway.”
Apprenticeships are intended to serve as a starting line from which students can go anywhere — college, promotions, other companies or whatever calls to them — and the Alpine Bank and Gallegos Corporation apprentices are emblematic of this reality.
Avila is pursuing his real estate license with eyes on owning his own business in the county. Rios is working towards an associate’s degree in psychology at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards, after which she hopes to get her bachelor’s degree in human services. Ramos is taking classes at CMC to open more doors for promotion at Alpine Bank.
Though early in her own apprenticeship, Zaruba believes in the value of the program so strongly that she joined the CareerWise advisory board to help expand it and continue attracting local companies to utilize apprentices in their business.
“There are just a lot of people that want more experience outside of what is just traditionally offered,” Zaruba said. “There are a lot of kids who want to go into culinary, or go into IT. I know there are some kids who want to go into aviation and we have the resources to do that with the jet center and the airport. We have all of these opportunities, it’s just about getting people involved.”
Employer enrollment for the 2023 school year is now open, and Williams encourages anyone interested in hiring an apprentice to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to begin the process.
Student recruitment begins around mid-February, jobs are assigned by May 1 and apprentices begin their program at the start of the 2023 fall semester. All job descriptions must be finalized before recruitment begins, so interested businesses should reach out as soon as possible.
Eagle County is pioneering apprenticeships in the rural U.S., and has only scratched the surface of the program’s potential to meet the unique needs of students and employers in the valley. With the success that the program’s first five years have shown, the next ten could prove to be transformational for the employment landscape if enough people buy in to the new concept.
“There are a lot of good, motivated kids in this area,” Zaruba said. “They just need the opportunity.”