Polis holds Colorado apprentice program as example during congressional hearing

Author: Tom Ramstack - September 6, 2018 - Updated: September 24, 2018

(Photo courtesy of CareerWise Colorado via Facebook)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on Wednesday mentioned a Colorado program that encourages high school apprenticeships as a model for what Congress seeks to achieve through a workforce development initiative.

Polis, D-Boulder, questioned expert witnesses during a hearing of the House Committee on Education and Workforce.

“I’m also proud that Colorado is leading the way to connect students with apprenticeships through a new public-private partnership known as CareerWise, which has a goal of training 20,000 students for need-based high-paying jobs through apprenticeships in fields like technology, hospitality and finance,” Polis said.

CareerWise Colorado is a program launched last year by the state Business Experiential-Learning Commission. It encourages high school students to earn postsecondary education credit, industry credentials or both while working as apprentices.

School districts and businesses in Denver, Fort Collins and the Western Slope are participating. The businesses include the Bank of Colorado, LPR Construction, Tolmar Pharmaceuticals and UCHealth.

Congress is holding hearings on apprenticeships as it reviews progress and problems that might have arisen from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2014.

The act is the federal government’s primary legislation to coordinate workforce development through adult education and job centers and the like. Funding for student apprenticeships is another part of the program.

Congressional Republicans are pushing for a revision to the law that would reduce the rules for participating businesses. They say the bureaucracy interferes with recruitment of apprentices.

Participating businesses must follow U.S. Labor Department regulations that require them to submit written plans describing the work apprentices would perform. The companies must increase their wages the longer they are employed.

House Democrats are resisting the Republican-led revisions, saying they could result in exploitation of apprentices.

Polis sought assurances from educational and industry executives who testified that apprentices would receive post-secondary associate or four-year college credit for their work. He called the credit for high school apprentices “incredibly valuable if they choose to go on in their education.”

He also said he would like to see the federal and state governments cooperate to create “a seamless solution for workforce development for young people.”

Congressional support for expanding apprenticeships is propelled partly by recent U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports showing more than six million unfilled jobs in the United States, many of them because the workforce lacks required skills.

Carol Reynolds, founder of Louisville, Ky., electrical contractor United Industrial Services, told Congress that “Electrical contractors, like the rest of the construction industry, continue to struggle to find qualified candidates to fill openings all across the country.”

She also complained about regulations on hiring apprentices under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Electrical contractors “have reported mixed results at best,” Reynolds said.

Contractors who say they benefit from the program “have expressed frustration with how time-intensive, confusing and bureaucratic the program is, making them less likely to utilize (the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) in the future,” she said.

One of the nation’s most successful apprentice programs is found in Wisconsin, where nearly 11,000 registered apprentices  are working with 2,500 employers.

“The annual median salary for someone who completes an apprenticeship program is $71,624,” said B.J. Dernbach, assistant deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. “In addition, two years after completion of their programs, 98 percent of the apprentices were still working at the same occupation and 94 percent were still living in Wisconsin.”

The hearing comes at a crucial time in Polis’ campaign for Colorado governor as he seeks support from the state’s educators.

Until he defeated Democratic rival Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary race in June, many state teachers snubbed Polis and showed a preference for Kennedy. Last month, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association endorsed Polis for governor.

Polis founded two public charter schools in Colorado. He is the former chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack