Certificates and apprenticeships increasingly avenues for high-paying tech jobs in Colorado

He saw an ad for ActivateWork. It offers tuition-free IT training, typically a 15-week boot camp, 12 months of career counseling and links to industry jobs. Courses include desktop support, security fundamentals, and software engineering. The company pays for this service.

Colorado has one of the largest technology gaps in the nation. There are nearly 25,000 vacancies for cybersecurity jobs alone. The average salary for these jobs is six figures. But there aren’t enough people to fill them. Half of the jobs don’t require a four-year degree. It is not enough to rely solely on the current higher education system to produce graduates.

Take Colorado’s high school graduating class of 2015, for example. After six years, only 28 percent had completed a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree.


More and more companies are looking to organizations like ActivateWork that offer free short-term certificates to learners aged 18 to 55 who are eager to start their careers.

Kathryn Harris, chief operating officer of ActivateWork, said: “Talent demand is exceeding expectations, but supply is shrinking as higher education becomes more expensive.” She sees a large number of untapped workers, especially in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Multi-year-olds who are stuck in jobs with no career path.

“They’ve always had a talent, interest or passion for technology, but they didn’t have the resources or time to improve their skills,” she said.

They’re also more diverse — a plus in a tech world that’s currently very white and very male. ActivateWork screens candidates for work ethic, initiative, follow-up, coachability, and technical ability.

Horton took the Comp TIA A+ certification introductory course. He spent two years as a technical support specialist at First Bank, earning approximately $45,000 a year.

“This certification alone can provide all kinds of good development opportunities in almost all of Denver in the surrounding city,” he said.

20220927-ISAAC-HORTON-Short-Term CertificateHart Vandenberg/CPR News
Isaac Houghton at his Denver home in September. February 27, 2022.
20220927-ISAAC-HORTON-Short-Term CertificateHart Vandenberg/CPR News

However, Horton understands that many companies still require a four-year degree or equivalent experience for mid-level positions such as technical support engineers.

“It’s very finicky, when the game goes to 11. Go up from there until you can get in, it’s like climbing up a vertical wall.”

ActivateWork sees a huge demand for mid-skill technical jobs such as software engineers and cybersecurity specialists. It launched a program to help companies build apprenticeship programs based on the precise skills companies need. Harris recalls an employer who started a cybersecurity apprenticeship and accepted several employees, including three ActivateWork graduates.

“In terms of the number of tickets that can go through in a week, they outpace the rest of the staff. So, all of a sudden, you start saying, ‘Well, I always thought I needed a candidate with a four-year degree. I always thought they These types of experiences are required.”

With declining public funding for higher education (Colorado ranks 47th in public investment in higher education) forcing higher tuition fees, many see apprenticeships as a learn-and-earn model as a low-cost, quicker access to high-skilled, high-paying jobs . Even the final legislative task force report said Colorado was not paying enough attention to higher education programs that put learners in high-paying jobs.

Workforce experts and groups like the Colorado Fair Economic Mobility Initiative are advocating for more government support and incentives for organizations like ActivateWork, Climb Hire, and CrossPurpose that provide learners with effective tuition-free training and are helping them land and stay well Proven track record in terms of status – paying jobs in high-growth, high-wage sectors. ActivateWork’s Harris wants to give employers more incentives — underrepresented — to test apprenticeship strategies.

Colorado has so far allocated $200 million from the US Rescue Program Act for workforce development and education.

Jenny Brentin/CPR News
Kathryn Harris is Chief Operating Officer of ActivateWork, a 15-week tuition-free IT course. She said 80 per cent of graduates were still working a year later, well above the industry average.

Seventy percent of Colorado’s high school graduates do not earn a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree within six years.

This means that the vast majority of Colorado students do not have effective programs for finding high-paying jobs. So many workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s have felt trapped for years in low-paying jobs or jobs they’re not interested in.

When 27-year-old Felicia Butler was in high school in Henderson, the focus was on getting good grades on the ACT and getting into college.

“Other than that, welcome to the working class,” she recalls.

After high school she was accepted to college, but suddenly became homeless.

“I didn’t have the skills or knowledge about how to defend myself, how to get help, how to solve problems,” she said.

For the next nine years, she did everything – construction, retail, food and beverage. Butler has worked multiple jobs during the pandemic, including working night shifts at Amazon warehouses.

“And just being worked, being worked…I’m working two jobs and it feels like I’m just running in a circle and I’m just getting burned.”

She saw an ad for Climb Hire. It offers tuition-free training for many career tracks: customer experience, sales force administrator, financial services or Google project management. The mission statement on the website caught her attention.

“Helping talent build economic mobility.”

Butler participates in the Salesforce training program, which provides people with the technical skills to help businesses use the Salesforce platform. She now works as an operations administrator and event planner.

“2021 was the first time I was able to provide myself with stable housing. That’s where my life really changed.”

Jenny Brentin/CPR News
senator. Michael Bennet at the Spring Short-Term Certificate Program Roundtable.

For many learners, even completing a short certificate program while struggling to pay rent and buy food can be a huge challenge.

Emeline Peralta was the first in her family to go to college.

“The key word is ‘attend,'” she told a group at a spring roundtable discussing the short certificate program senators take. Michael Bennett.

Like many people, she never finished. Peralta worked seasonally in the resort community for several years. In the end, she couldn’t pay the rent. Peralta discovered Climb Hire. But working during the day and trying to keep up with studies and homework, even for a short-term certificate, with a precarious living situation, she almost gave up.

“I’m really excited to think about that dark period when I almost quit. I almost gave up because I couldn’t afford to do better.”

She was able to move in with her boyfriend and completed the project. She is now the Project Operations Coordinator at Climb Hire. Peralta’s salary has doubled compared to when he worked three jobs.

“The quality of life has improved dramatically. It’s a weird thing to be out of survival mode all my life. Now I’m lucky enough to dream bigger…I’m so happy, proud and confident. I’ve found a professional identity to build on.”

Graduates of short-term certificate programs say it helps to get federal aid to help cover costs. Currently, students who do not attend an accredited post-secondary institution cannot receive federal student aid like Pell Grants. senator. Bennet is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow aid for learners attending high-quality trade schools, community colleges and short-term certificate programs.

Another new state law aims to improve students’ ability to earn stackable certificates, where credits accrue as students attempt to pursue a degree.

Randy Cordova is a perfect example of how the education system loses so much talent that doesn’t go straight into degree programs.

“Four-year colleges … it’s not even a reality in my opinion. Either you go to college or people drop out of school to work,” said Cordova, 49.

As a boy growing up in Aurora, he remembers being fascinated by early home computers like the Commodore 64. But he said he did not perform well in school and was not encouraged by counselors.

“I think from sixth grade I got Fs and Ds. I didn’t even pass. I don’t even remember much. I remember a consultant once telling me I should be a construction worker and construction is An honorable profession, but I think they’re telling me in good faith that I’m not smart enough to do anything else.”

Over the next few decades, Cordova did a lot of different things—building, plumbing (he even worked on plumbing at the downtown ActivateWork office). But one day he resigned.

“I’m unhappy. I’ve always wanted to work with a computer, but I’m unhappy.”

Jenny Brentin/CPR News
Randy Cordova didn’t see college as an option after failing many high school classes. But he has always liked computers. After years of building, he got some IT certifications and now works in the tech industry.

He has been pursuing a degree in Computer Information Systems at Metro State University, beginning full-time study towards the end of his degree. But that leaves him with no income. He panicked and started applying for IT jobs, but was told he had no experience. Cordova saw the ActivateWork ad and took the class and some alumni computer classes. In an entry-level IT position, he now has better perks like a tenured construction worker. He now earns $55,000 as a client desktop engineer at Centura Health.

“Now I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said.

Cordova finally got a bachelor’s degree. (Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn 67 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.) This will help him achieve his goal of becoming a network engineer. Once he posted his bachelor’s degree on Linked In, it sparked another wave of recruiters desperate for IT talent. But Cordova says he would never have stepped into IT if it wasn’t for the short-term certificate program.

“Certificates and experience almost trump education. I look at people in this field — a lot of people don’t have degrees — they have credentials, they have experience,” he said.

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