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To address workforce shortages, Colorado lawmakers look to expand student work opportunities

Job candidates stand around a table at a career fair.

Colorado lawmakers want to expand job opportunities while in school for students.

Joe Amon / The Denver Post

Colorado lawmakers want to expand K-12 students’ ability to get school credit for working and incentivize employers to create more programs that help students learn from employment opportunities. 

Under the proposal in the Colorado legislature, the state would also teach adults learning English the language skills that help them earn jobs.

Lawmakers hope the $6.1 million that would be spent over the next two years on the pilot program would help build a more employable workforce and address worker shortages. The proposal passed the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee Wednesday by a 3-2 vote. The bill will head to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The program would act as a way for the state to explore how to create more work opportunities for students and adults. And it would require state officials to outline what they want students to learn from leaving campus to work.

“With looming shortages facing our state in the coming decades, we know that now is the time to seek sustainable solutions by aligning our workforce talent development ecosystem to work opportunities,” said state Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and a sponsor of the bill with state Rep. Barbara MacLachlan, a Durango Democrat.

The bill would split the money three ways:

  • $3 million to expand across the state student programs in which they learn while they work.
  • $2.0 million to hire employees to ensure students have access to technology and literacy support.
  • $1.1 million to start a virtual program that helps English learning adults get the language skills needed to get a job.

The bill would also create a task force to study how to connect new Americans to in-demand jobs. Coleman said Senate Bill 140 leaves open which industries could participate in the program. 

He said job opportunities at a young age helped open his eyes to what was possible for his future and he hopes the bill will do the same for others. He also said English learning adults represent a group that hasn’t received the necessary support.

The employment of young people has grown to become a topic of national concern. Fewer 16-to-19-years-old are getting jobs in the U.S., said Bob Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow and American University professor emeritus who specializes in youth employment programs. In 1989, when job opportunities were low, about 47% of people in that age group were employed. In 2021, that number was about 32%, he said.

Experiential learning in school, which offers access to apprenticeship programs, internships, and other job programs, helps students become more employable, Lerman said. 

But, he cautioned, the state should outline what it wants students to learn from these programs because not all provide students with the same learning opportunities. For example, apprenticeship programs are shown to help students get quality experience, he said. 

The proposal has the support of numerous business groups and employers across the state, including chambers of commerce, hospital associations, and business alliances. The AFL-CIO was the only group asking for an amendment to the bill that would better spell out accountability and allow existing programs to receive grants.

Kelly Caufield, Colorado Succeeds vice president, said the bill helps lay the groundwork to meet labor shortages statewide, especially in high-demand areas such as nursing and software development. Colorado Succeeds is a business and education coalition that advocates for education improvements.

The bill would also complement the work state lawmakers have done to bolster K-12 and higher education job training programs.

The cost to businesses to run programs that bring in students can be high and this bill helps get that work started for some, she said.  Though businesses will benefit by getting help with labor shortages, Caufield said students will ultimately benefit the most.

“We believe empowering young people through experiential learning opportunities is key to their future success,” Caufield said. “And it’s key to the success of the Colorado economy.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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