Apprenticeship act aims to build construction careers
New legislation would help students pay their way through school and nail down high-paying jobs in an industry that desperately needs workers.
Take one look at downtown, and you’ll notice a common theme: Construction projects dominate the Denver skyline.
The City of Denver says it needs upward of 40,000 construction workers to complete major projects already underway. And businesses are struggling to fill those contracts. To help address worker shortages, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in July introduced legislation to invest in apprenticeship programs in higher education: the Student Apprenticeship Act.
The act promotes collaboration and would provide funds for higher education and employers to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. It also allows apprenticeship programs to qualify as work-study, so eligible students can earn money to pay their tuition.
“The legislation aligns really well with our students’ need to work while taking classes,” said Maluwa Behringer, executive director of industry partnerships at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Classroom to Career Hub (C2 Hub).
“About 80% of MSU Denver students work while going to school, but in a recent survey of Construction Project Management and Civil Engineering Technology students, only 20% of students were working in their chosen career field,” Behringer said. “If we can transition those students into construction apprenticeships, where they could earn while learning, that would be a big win for students and for the construction industry.”
Anthony Miller, a senior at MSU Denver studying Construction Project Management, doesn’t mince words about the importance of hands-on experience in the construction industry.
“If you want to work and make a substantial living as a tradesperson,” Miller said, “you have to have hands-on experience. Those who don’t go through apprenticeships are listed as unskilled labor, and their pay is substantially less.”
While at MSU Denver, Miller was able to work toward his journeyman license in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, which he earned in 2020. He now works full-time as a journeyman at Denver-based contractor RK Mechanical.
“My license has helped me to become a lead person and get the ball rolling on a promotion to foreman,” Miller said. “And MSU Denver was accommodating while I was getting my license — I could take classes online, at night and on the weekend and not miss out on work.”
MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., who has said she would like to see all MSU Denver students have some kind of work-based opportunities, recently spoke with Bennet about the importance of apprenticeships.
“Apprenticeships provide relevant, enriching experiences for college students, and at MSU Denver we’ve seen firsthand how these work-based learning opportunities kick-start our students’ careers,” Davidson said. “I am proud to support Sen. Bennet’s bill to create more apprenticeship programs, which will connect credentials to careers through valuable hands-on training for students.”
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Davidson added that MSU Denver has “developed a reputation” for wanting to work with employers. In fact, MSU Denver has already forged partnerships with Associated General Contractors, the leading association for the construction industry; WorkNow, a Colorado-based employment platform; and over 30 construction companies to build a diverse talent pipeline for the construction industry.
“We want to work with (employers) to craft the right kind of experience for (them) and the students,” Davidson said. “There’s a hiring crunch, but we have the talent right here. We want to help students find the work they love and go for it.”
The University has also piloted innovative approaches to get more students on the pathway to careers in construction. For example, the Construction Talent Accelerator leverages the Finish What You Started grant to help students with college credit finish their degrees. The University is also working to recruit high school juniors and seniors for construction apprenticeships by admitting them into the concurrent-enrollment program.
In addition, the C2 Hub’s Behringer said MSU Denver’s Construction Project Management degree recognizes U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeships and offers up to 30 credits for students who have completed an apprenticeship.
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In spring 2023, MSU Denver’s Innovative and Lifelong Learning program will offer the Career Launchpad course, Introduction to Construction Project Management, to help noncredit and certificate-seeking students learn more about construction concepts.
“Offering these credits for a DOL apprenticeship is very important for our students’ future employment, and it recognizes the industry experience students have gained,” Behringer said. “This also gives students a jump-start to their degrees and helps them finish faster and get into higher-paying jobs quicker.”
Miller said he hopes to become an operations manager with his current employer, adding that he’s bullish on the outlook for jobs in construction — especially in Denver.
“My degree will propel me down one of two paths: a superintendent or a project manager,” Miller said. “Fortunately, skilled tradespeople are always in demand and will likely never have problems finding work.”