#RethinkSchool: Struggling Student Discovers Path through Colorado Apprenticeship Program

Sierra didn’t always dream of working in the insurance business. In fact, until recently, she didn’t even know if she’d finish high school.

But with the help of a caring counselor, a local business and an innovative state effort, Sierra is now thriving in her new role as a full-time employee at Pinnacol Assurance.

Her journey from struggling student to working professional began when Sierra’s counselor approached her with a new opportunity through CareerWise, a Colorado nonprofit that helps businesses recruit talent through paid apprenticeships that begin in high school.

Sierra (center) speaks in a meeting with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet.

“I was stuck. My life is kind of different. I have no parents, so I am really on my own,” said Sierra. The Colorado resident says she spent her early years being “tossed around a lot” without a stable home to ground her academically or personally – so she planned on dropping out.

Despite Sierra’s reservations, her counselor thought the program would be a “good fit.” So the high schooler conducted research and then attended a presentation by Pinnacol, a Denver-based insurance company. Work at the company had exciting benefits, including a tuition reimbursement program.

“I knew I had to have this opportunity,” said Sierra. “I grabbed it.” During the first year of the program, CareerWise students attend high school classes three days a week and participate in on-the-job training for up to 16 hours per week. By the third year, students have finished their formal academic classes, and begin working 32 hours or more.

Work-based learning opportunities like Sierra’s are part of a statewide push to promote apprenticeships. By strengthening the talent pipeline, state leaders believe Colorado can build a competitive economy now, and maintain that edge in the future.

The Business Experiential Learning Commission – a state effort – travelled to Switzerland in 2016 to learn about the country’s successful apprenticeship model and find ways to adapt what’s working there for Colorado businesses, communities, and students. Since then, the Commission has developed a work-based learning system – including apprenticeships – that prepares residents to meet the demands of today’s economy.

Students with Senator Bennet

Sierra learned about those demands firsthand – among them, communication and collaboration. “Looking back even in pictures — even the way I held myself — to seeing it now, I see how I’ve drastically changed,” said Sierra. “I’ve seen it in myself.” After a challenging start at Pinnacol, Sierra now identifies herself as a “professional.”

“[Apprentices] provide a lot of energy and new perspectives,” said a Pinnacol representative. “They are more tech savvy than a lot of our employees.”

Drawn from a pool of both struggling and high-achieving students, apprentices are highly motivated to succeed – motivation they might not find in traditional classroom settings. Coupled with on-the-job training, their skills fill much-needed gaps in a variety of fields.

“[Apprentices] are better consumers of their education because they’ve been in the workplace and know exactly how to apply that education,” said Hollis Salway, Director of Development for CareerWise. “We really have to get away from the traditional concept of school… and away from the ‘four-year college path only’ concept.”

For Sierra, a career at Pinnacol truly is the perfect fit.  The company certainly agrees.

“When I got hired full-time, I cried,” said Sierra. “It’s unbelievable to think that this opportunity is mine.”

In Colorado, opportunities like these are helping to strengthen the prospects of individual businesses, and the state’s economy. And, whatever her career holds, one thing is clear to both employee and employer: Sierra has a bright future.


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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.