Littleton resident Shea Swickle thought the master’s degree he earned in public health was the key to his career future. When he discovered demand for jobs in the field was limited, Swickle …
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Littleton resident Shea Swickle thought the master’s degree he earned in public health was the key to his career future. When he discovered demand for jobs in the field was limited, Swickle instead pursued training as a sterile processing technician - a behind-the-scenes professional who sterilizes equipment used during surgeries.
Today, thanks to an apprenticeship through Front Range Community College (FRCC), the 39-year-old is a sterile processing technician at AdventHealth Littleton. It’s a job he loves, even more so because he can walk there from his Littleton home.
Last week, Swickle shared that story with Governor Jared Polis, who visited with students in work-based learning programs at Westminster’s FRCC.
“It made a difference in my life,” Swickle said. “I have a job that actually has demand.
“A lot of us who went to college never got that job we were hoping for at the end of the rainbow. I saw that apprenticeships were where education was going. The company (you apprentice with) can tailor you to what they want you to be. You’re not just spending time in a classroom and then trying to go out and get a job.”
FRCC partners with local industries to offer apprenticeships in healthcare, manufacturing, IT and other fields. The on-the-job training dovetails with classroom learning. And many employers help apprentices with tuition.
That allows people like Swickle to make a career change and incur little or no debt.
Polis has taken numerous steps to support such programs. As a result, Colorado has over 300 active apprenticeship programs with more than 6,000 participants.
“Apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities are key to creating the workforce of the future,” said Polis, who signed a new executive order Sept. 7 that further expands the programs. “But there is still more work to be done. We must expand opportunities for students and workers of all ages to get the training they need to start or build careers that support them and their families.”
FRCC offered its first apprenticeship in 2018.
“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds, so much so that we were the first college in Colorado to be designated a US Department of Labor Apprenticeship Ambassador,” said Rebecca Woulfe, FRCC’s vice president of Academic Affairs & Online Learning. “Thanks to Governor Polis and the Colorado General Assembly, FRCC also now offers 30 degrees and certificates in high-demand fields — at zero cost to students.”
This semester, more than 1,500 FRCC students are enrolled in no-cost programs supported by state funding. About a dozen of them shared their stories with the governor during his Sept. 8 visit.
Bennett Gaibler graduated from FRCC’s surgical technology program, and now works at UCHealth. The program helped him save money that he’s tagging for a future home.
“I was able to get paid for my clinicals; that was definitely a huge plus,” he said.“I still live at home, and I’m trying to buy a house.
“I have been at my job over a year now, and I’m loving it. I’m doing surgeries every day. I’m helping people, and it’s lots of fun.”
Sarah Enochson, 52 of Longmont, lost her long-time job as a writer at a greeting card company in 2020. She enrolled in graphic design classes at FRCC to expand her skillset.
“I caught the bug,” she said. “It brought out a side of me that was obviously there all along, but hadn’t been developed.
“I’ve had moments of self-doubt throughout because it’s hard to start over at this point in life, but I’ve had encouragement all the way through.”
Much of that came through an internship at a graphic design agency on FRCC’s Boulder campus.
“That’s an opportunity I would not have had in a classroom,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of graphic design and grow as a leader. It’s given me something to put on my resume that shows a breadth of experience and ability, and exposed me to different paths within the graphic design field.
“I have three college-aged kids. And I’m encouraging all of them to get any paid experience they can. It puts you at an advantage over all the other students that don’t have that experience. It makes you a known entity to someone. And often, it leads to your job. It's as important as any of the classes you take.”
Polis spoke little during his visit, instead asking the students questions and listening to the students.
He said the administration is pursuing an apprenticeship tax credit for businesses and taking other measures designed to ramp up participation.
Polis and several Colorado business leaders recently visited Switzerland to learn more about their apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships are deeply rooted in Swiss society, providing a well-established career pathway and contributing to a low youth unemployment rate and low student debt.
“They have the apprentice model really ingrained into everything they do there,” he said. “We took major employers with us to Switzerland … so they can see what that looks like in a place where it’s well established.
“It’s newer to America. It’s a little bit of an education process here. We want to grow it here.”
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