The Swiss Secret to Jump-Starting Your Career
By Dwyer Gunn
On a recent sunny summer morning, Ben Roueche pulled into the parking lot at the corporate headquarters of HomeAdvisor, in a suburban office park near Denver. Once inside, Roueche, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, sat down at a desk, logged on to his computer, and started resolving support tickets submitted by HomeAdvisor employees seeking help for everything from password resets to problems accessing the company’s internal phone system. At one point, Roueche paused to chat with his supervisor about establishing a setup procedure for a new video prototype that some executives will soon begin using.
Ben Roueche is 17; he just finished his junior year of high school. For the past year, he has spent three days a week attending classes at a charter high school and two days a week working on the desktop-support team at HomeAdvisor. Earlier this summer, Roueche started working at HomeAdvisor three days a week, a schedule he’ll maintain throughout his senior year.
Roueche belongs to the inaugural class of apprentices in a Colorado program, started last summer, called CareerWise. It represents Colorado’s attempt to create an unusual, statewide youth-apprenticeship system. “This program has more scale than almost any other broad apprenticeship that I know of,” Harry Holzer, a public-policy professor at Georgetown University, told me. Its goals are ambitious: CareerWise’s founders are trying to both prepare today’s youth for well-paid jobs in the industries of the future and to change a culture that insists every 18-year-old should graduate high school and go straight to college.
CareerWise is the brainchild of Noel Ginsburg, the founder of a Colorado-based advanced manufacturing company called Intertech Plastics. Ginsburg visited Switzerland, which has a widely admired youth-apprenticeship program, while serving as the chairman of the Denver Public Schools College and Career Pathways council.“What I didn’t expect is that apprenticeship isn’t just for construction—they have over 250 pathways there, everything from manufacturing to banking,” Ginsburg told me. “Seventy percent of kids there enroll in apprenticeships instead of going directly to college.”
Switzerland’s not the only developed country with a robust apprenticeship program; the model has long been prevalent in Germany and Austria, and both Australia and the United Kingdom have launched initiatives in recent years to increase apprenticeship. Studies of programs in these countries have documented substantial economic benefits for both apprentices and their employees. However, the model remains rare in the United States. Ginsburg was convinced that a statewide apprenticeship program could both help address Colorado’s workforce challenges and widen access to well-paying jobs across a variety of industries not typically associated with apprenticeship.
He sold Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, on the idea, and the two of them returned to Switzerland in 2015, along with 50 others—CEOs of local companies, leaders of school districts and community colleges, and philanthropists—to study the model more closely.
Ashley Carter, CareerWise’s chief operating officer, says the program was designed to duplicate several important components of the Swiss model. The first is that CareerWise’s business partners should receive a return on their investment in apprentices during the course of the apprenticeship. Also, CareerWise’s apprenticeships should increase students’ career options, not narrow them.
“The Swiss have created a youth-apprenticeship system that’s very permeable,” Carter told me. “And by that we mean that students who start an apprenticeship in Switzerland follow any number of paths. They can get a Ph.D., they can go straight into the workforce ... So participating in apprenticeship isn’t a dead end.”
What this means in practice is that if all goes well, at the end of his three-year apprenticeship, Ben Roueche, like all CareerWise apprentices, will have earned: a high-school diploma (on time); up to a year’s worth of college credit (at no cost to him); at least one valuable, recognized industry credential (also at no cost); and thousands of dollars worth of wages ($30,000, on average, among CareerWise apprentices). Roueche, who wants to ultimately work in cybersecurity, may enroll in college full-time, join HomeAdvisor as a full-fledged employee (with eligibility for tuition reimbursement for college), or perhaps go work elsewhere.
“The program’s not intended to say ‘You don’t need a four-year degree’ to everyone,” explains Ginsburg. “At the same time, there are other jobs where you don’t need a four-year degree to be successful. The ultimate goal is to make sure that kids are looking at their educational and career options and asking if that pathway puts them into a career that takes them into the middle class and beyond.”
Expanding apprenticeship in the United States is the rare policy proposal that garners bipartisan support. Earlier this month, Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing a National Council of the American Worker, which will be tasked with, among other things, increasing apprenticeships in the United States; scholars and politicians across the political spectrum have also expressed support for the concept.
There’s good reason for this broad support. While apprenticeship remains quite rare in the United States, evaluations of existing programs have documented impressive results. One evaluation of registered apprenticeship programs in the U.S. estimated that participants who complete their programs will earn about $240,000 more than non-participants over the course of a career. Studies conducted in the U.S. and elsewhere have found meaningful benefits for society and employers, as well.
There are, however, limitations to apprenticeship. The most common critique of apprenticeship—and work-based and vocational learning in general—concerns what’s known as “skill portability,” or whether the specialized expertise learned in a given apprenticeship is applicable in other industries or with other employers. If Roueche chooses to forgo college and later wants to leave HomeAdvisor, or move to a different state, will his apprenticeship experience be valued by employers?
“In a world where the sectors are dynamic, and a sector that’s in high demand today might not even be around tomorrow, there’s a danger in specializing,” Holzer, the Georgetown professor, said. “What you really hope for is that whatever sub-B.A. credentials people get, that they are portable ... at a minimum across firms, and ideally even across sectors and industries.”
CareerWise’s advocates note they are aware of these concerns and have incorporated a number of elements—namely, debt-free college credit and an industry-recognized credential—that researchers believe can help mitigate these effects. “At the end of the program, this kid has gone through the apprenticeship, and he has the choice,” Hickenlooper told me. “He can keep making money with this credential, or he can go to college with a year’s credit.” He adds, “not only does he not have any debt, he’s probably got $10,000 to $15,000 in the bank.” Colin Dean, a classmate of Roueche’s and a co-apprentice at HomeAdvisor, told me, “In high school, you learn a lot of skills that don’t really apply to real life right now, but here I’m learning real-life skills that I can use now. Also, compared to high school, I get paid.”
Both Dean and Roueche are from economically secure families; their school focuses on stem. Indeed, apprenticeships have traditionally been disproportionately held by white men. A recent report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, found that last year, women made up only 7.3 percent of participants in Registered Apprenticeship programs, which are registered with the Department of Labor and subject to labor standards established by the National Apprenticeship Act. The report also noted that both female and African American (male and female) apprentices earned lower wages upon completing their apprenticeship than their white, male peers. This is at least partly a function of the types of industries that women more typically apprentice in: The median hourly wage for electricians, for example, is twice the median wage for child-care workers. The gender wage gap is narrower for women who participate in apprenticeships in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Angela Hanks, an author of the Center for American Progress report, notes that diversity needs to be a focus of the program if equity is a goal: “Apprenticeship is not inherently more equitable than other pathways to employment. There is potential to better engage women and people of color in these programs, but states and programs need to be intentional about hiring, training, and promoting those workers.”
In this respect, CareerWise’s emphasis on industries not typically associated with apprenticeship—financial services and business administration, for example—may reduce some of the gender and racial disparities in access to, and outcomes of, apprenticeship. In the first year, 49 percent of CareerWise apprentices were white, 26 percent were Hispanic, and 14 percent were African American. These demographics roughly correspond with the demographics of the partner school districts (although Hispanics represent a higher proportion of students in the school districts). A significant gender disparity exists, however. Women represented only 39 percent of apprentices, despite representing 49 percent of the student body at participating districts. This appears to be partly because women represented only 35 percent of applicants.
While socioeconomic data on CareerWise’s apprentices was not available, Tanya Jones, HomeAdvisor’s director of recruiting, told me that CareerWise applicants in the first year of the program were unusually high-performing, were highly motivated, and likely already planned to attend college. Roueche builds websites and drones in his spare time; he intends to complete a four-year degree at some point and likely would have done so even without CareerWise. Jones, however, noted that the apprentices who will join HomeAdvisor in the program’s second year are more socioeconomically diverse; several, if they ultimately attend college, will be the first in their families to do so.
CareerWise’s creators and advocates hope the program, which will be evaluated by an independent research firm, will serve as a replicable model for other states; Holzer, Hanks, and other researchers are watching the program closely. “This is more of an attempt to build a system, to really try to reach out to a lot of employers with some scale,” Holzer said. “We should be able to learn a lot from this attempt.”