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Daniela Fernandez became an apprentice at Chook Charcoal Chicken in Denver last summer as part of the Colorado Restaurant Foundation's Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship. Restaurants get extra help and students get trained as line cooks or restaurant managers. (Provided by the Colorado Restaurant Foundation)

As the challenge continues for employers to fill job openings — and workers try to get a job offer — there’s been a big push by the state of Colorado to tap into an old-timey resource: apprenticeships.

But first, in local economic news, Colorado’s February unemployment rate came in at 4%, which is slightly lower than January’s and the lowest since the pandemic began. It’s higher than the U.S. February rate of 3.8% and still much higher than February 2020’s 2.8% low.

However, the state has now recovered from the pandemic, at least job wise, said Ryan Gedney, principal economist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. He shared during a news conference Friday that the state has gained back 102% of the 375,400 jobs lost in March and April 2020. We’re now up 6,400 jobs than before the pandemic, ranking Colorado as the 11th fastest recovery (the U.S. is around 90% recovery).

We also have the largest number of working-age adults participating in the labor force (again), counting 3.2 million people working or looking for work. Although revisions could change that again, that puts Colorado’s labor force participation rate at 68.7%, ranking Colorado as third highest nationwide.

“At nearly 3.2 million, Colorado’s labor force is at a historically high level,” Gedney said.

See Colorado’s February labor data >> DATA

Grow your own staff

There’s a renaissance going on in labor. It’s bringing back training of yore with apprentices, a term originating in 13th Century Europe to describe someone “bound by legal agreement to an employer to learn a craft or trade,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

OK, it’s not really a new endeavor, at least within the state’s labor agency. But talk of modernizing apprenticeships has become more frequent in the past year as Colorado considers how this sort of worker could help fill the demand for skilled trades. 

In February, Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh met in Denver to talk about apprenticeships and designate $113 million to create grant programs nationwide. Last fall, the U.S. labor agency said it would modernize its Registered Apprenticeship Program, and committed $130 million to 15 states, including $10 million in Colorado. Colorado calls its share the Innovation, Diversity, Equity in Apprenticeship grant, or IDEA grants.

And last June, Polis signed a law to create a new office, the State Apprenticeship Agency, as part of Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

What it means is that now’s a good time for employers to start or expand and modernize an apprenticeship program — or for workers to check out the programs that already exist. 

Daniela Fernandez became an apprentice at Chook Charcoal Chicken in Denver last summer as part of the Colorado Restaurant Foundation’s Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship. Restaurants get extra help and students get trained as line cooks or restaurant managers. (Provided by the Colorado Restaurant Foundation)

The Colorado Restaurant Association was one of four states participating in a national program to train future restaurant managers and line cooks. It created its own version of the Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship and offered grants to interested restaurants. More than 100 applied and it was able to pay $3,000 to 19 restaurants. But since money wasn’t the only reason to start an apprenticeship, 36 employers are participating, said Mark Antonation, a CRA spokesman.

“We had a goal of creating a database of at least 1,000 employers throughout Colorado who showed interest in RYRA, by responding to us via phone, email, or survey response. We just passed that number this week,” he said in an email. “We wanted to have at least 150 employers at some stage of signing up for the apprenticeship program. We’re now at more than 300.”

Grants for all

It’s not just restaurants, of course. It’s pretty much anyone and everyone. And now the state’s labor department is offering grants ranging between $10,000 to $50,000 to companies or organizations that set up their own program through the state’s Scale-Up Grant Program. The deadline for the current $1.2 million round of grants is April 15.

“We believe in registered apprenticeships, the sort of earn-and-learn model, as a really powerful tool to help get people into work that they may not have any experience in or may not have considered,” said Katherine Keegan, director of the state’s Office of the Future of Work. “And one of the biggest reasons we really push it is the fact that you are required to be paid while you do this.”

She called registered apprenticeships “an intentional model” because it’s employer driven. 

“It’s all about them thinking and building out what skills specifically they need their workers to have and creating the opportunities for individuals to build those and become a master in that craft,” she said.

To be eligible, a company must set up a Registered Apprenticeship Program, an officially sanctioned program approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. That adds assurance that the program has been reviewed. If a company already has an unofficial program, it still needs the agency’s blessing to be eligible for a grant.

If that sounds hard, the state’s labor agency provides lots of help including experts who can guide the program creation. Registered programs need the following five ingredients: 

  1. Involve a business directly so apprentices work for an employer
  2. Provide on-the-job learning
  3. Offer related instruction in or out of a classroom — and outside of on-the-job learning 
  4. Give progressive wage increase
  5. Result in a national industry credential

“In Colorado, we’ve seen a real shift toward Registered Apprenticeship Programs as a tool, really, for economic recovery, pathways for individuals into in demand careers, and a really powerful model that both helps employers get the talent and build the talent they need, but also has very minimum barriers to entry so that more individuals can access these these jobs,” Keegan said. 

Next year, after the state’s new apprenticeship office is up and running, companies can register programs at the state level.

If you build it, they will come

Currently, there are 506 registered programs and more than a quarter of those are new or expanded since the pandemic began. A state registry links to 388 registered programs but not all are included, such as those available only to incarcerated residents, Keegan said. This database is for public use so residents can search and see the benefits.

Due to the ongoing labor shortages, which were happening before the pandemic, the registered programs have taken off in Colorado with 75 added last year and 14 so far this year. Here’s a chart of new or expanded programs by year in Colorado:

Existing apprenticeship programs are currently training 5,341 people in Colorado, with more than 10% of those participants joining so far in 2022. Another 800 or so active apprentices living in Colorado are participating in programs based outside of the state.

While construction dominates, other occupations are attracting interest. The IT and cybersecurity industries had the highest number of new or expanded programs last year, at 23, compared to 14 in construction. 

One within the Department of Local Affairs “ends with a Master’s in Public Administration,” Keegan said. “There are a lot of cool things like that. Through CareerWise, there’s an apprenticeship at McKinsey. The model gets me excited because it has key elements and regulations. But at the end of the day, it’s really flexible to meet the needs of a specific employer.”

→ Scale-Up grant program information >> APPLY 

→ Get help with setting up a Registered Apprenticeship Program >> Request help or check Consultants

→ More apprenticeship information from Colorado labor department >> VIEW

→ Official Colorado newsletter called “That’s a RAP!” >> SIGN UP


$50 million in refunds on the way to Colorado businesses

We’re not talking tax refunds. It’s still March afterall. But this week, the state’s largest workers-comp insurer Pinnacol Assurance began mailing checks averaging $287 to $1,542 to most of its 51,000 Colorado customers. Pinnacol, which provides insurance to just over half of the state’s employers, had collected more money than anticipated. 

The excess $50 million must be returned because Pinnacol, by state statute, acts like a mutual insurance company and must treat policyholders like shareholders. 

And it’s a lot of money, said Kathy Kranz, Pinnacol’s chief financial officer. But she explained what happened: 

  • There were fewer workers-comp claims last year, likely due to efforts to make worksites safer and also pandemic reasons. More remote work translated to fewer car accidents.
  • Better-than-expected returns on its investment in the market
  • A reserve that grows larger than needed to cover potential risks. The equity is reserved to pay long-term claims, like permanent disabilities, but also “black swan” events like a pandemic. Pinnacol keeps roughly $1.5 billion in reserve.

The goal is to offer customers the lowest rate possible on premiums so customers don’t have to pay as much up front, only to get a dividend later. But pandemics are hard to predict, not to mention how the stock market reacted to COVID. To offset excessive gains, the company also lowered its premium rates, which went down by an average of 11% this year.

“These last couple of years, our claims came in pretty much exactly where we expected them to come in,” Kranz said. “It was really investment income that drove the two $50 million dividends that we had the last two years.” 

It’s the seventh year Pinnacol has paid out a dividend and lowered its rates, according to the company.

→ 3-day tax delay — Speaking of refunds… if you were hoping the new wave of COVID might get the IRS to delay taxes again this year, you get three more days. The filing deadline is April 18, a Monday. But don’t credit the lingering pandemic. It’s because of Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Day holiday, and D.C. holidays impact federal tax deadlines. >> MORE 


Colorado’s job recovery and more working bits

By the numbers, here’s the latest data from the state’s labor department on how many jobs lost in the first two months of the pandemic have returned:

  • Grand Junction, 124%
  • Colorado Springs, 119%
  • Denver metro area, 105%
  • Pueblo, 102%
  • Fort Collins, 101%
  • Greeley, 47%
  • Rest of the state (47 non-metro counties), 94%
  • Colorado, 102%
Orange is how many jobs have returned since disappearing (the blue) in those dreary months of March and April 2020 when Colorado’s job count dropped by 375,400 jobs in two months after COVID-19 disruptions struck. Most Colorado metro areas have fully recovered, but Greeley continues to see a loss due to the impact on the oil and gas industry. Greeley has only recovered 47% of jobs lost. (Provided by Colorado Department of Labor and Employment)

See more data

Speaking of jobs…

→ Wanna fly? — United Airlines is hosting an in-person job fair on Tuesday, March 29, at the United Club at Empower Field at Mile High. Open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with free parking in Lot C near Gate 2. In great demand: Ramp workers, customer service reps, technical operation and flight attendants. >> DETAILS

United Airlines is back to in-person job fair events like this one from August 2021. The airline needs ramp service workers, customer service representatives and flight attendants and is hosting a job fair in Denver on March 29, 2022. (Provided by United Airlines)

→ Hello Pueblo — As of Friday afternoon, 25 companies from Bingo Burger to Evraz North America plan to tout their job openings at a March 31 job fair targeting residents in Pueblo. It’s free, online and accessible between 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with early access for veterans at 10 a.m..  >> REGISTER

→ This list isn’t shrinking — On the state’s official job board Friday, there were 123,289 open jobs posted on ConnectingColorado.com. That’s still roughly the same number last spring when rampant labor shortages were being shared. >> JOB SEARCH


Share your labor story: cosun.co/job-stories

With all this talk about jobs and career opportunities, I’m hearing much less frequently from those who can’t find one. What’s your situation? Are you still having trouble finding work and are having a hard time with the numbers that tell us Colorado has recovered 102% of jobs lost in the pandemic? Share your story (including if you’re an employer) with tamara@coloradosun.com. See you next week! ~tamara


What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating today’s economy. Read the archive, send a message and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter in your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww

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Tamara Chuang

Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww....