Unlocking Opportunities for Good Jobs in Colorado Through Inclusive Apprenticeships

By Maggie Mixer and Abeer Sikder

SEC founder Randee Van Ness (pictured far right in the back row) joined SEC youth apprentice Kamari Glover (shown fourth from the left in the front row) and other Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship participants in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In honor of National Apprenticeship Week, recognized November 13-19, 2023, The Center for Advancing Policy on Employment for Youth (CAPE-Youth) spoke with Randee Van Ness, CEO of the Skills Enrichment Center (SEC), as well as Kamari Glover, an SEC youth apprentice. SEC’s apprenticeship program exemplifies various daily themes of National Apprenticeship Week 2023, including registered apprenticeships for youth, underserved populations and new/emerging industries.

Constructing the Road to Registered Apprenticeships for Young Adults with Disabilities

Driven by family experiences, Randee Van Ness founded the Skills Enrichment Center (SEC) in 2020 to help young adults facing barriers to employment — especially individuals with disabilities — navigate their entry into the workforce and build fulfilling lives. Randee described how the current structure of the educational system leaves little opportunity for most young people with disabilities.

“People tend to look at people with disabilities and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’” Randee said. “We’re trying to prove, ‘Yes, they can, and they can do it at the same level as everybody else.’” 

SEC has put this philosophy into action by designing supportive services and partnerships with registered apprenticeships and local industry leaders to serve young adults ages 18-21 with disabilities. Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it is one of the first organizations in the nation to specialize in adapting registered apprenticeship programs to serve young adults with disabilities transitioning to full-time employment. 

SEC partners with various organizations to provide an array of educational and employment opportunities for its participants. The organization’s first partnership was with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart program, which provides culinary and baking tracks. The partnership receives funding from Colorado’s state apprenticeship agency and has been embraced with enthusiasm by local restaurants. Young adults with disabilities enrolled in ProStart’s Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship gained the skills and experience necessary to prepare them for independent work in the restaurant industry. (The Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration and offered in Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana and Maryland.) 

SEC launched a similar program for computer technology. It features a Microsoft Office Mastery Course and partnerships with local nonprofit organizations, such as the Autism Society of Colorado. SEC also has a Home Builders Institute program for construction and maintenance apprenticeships. Program participants gain classroom vocational and academic skills training and connect with local construction businesses. This includes a nationally recognized patented Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training (PACT) curriculum that offers classroom and work-based learning to help students find jobs in the building industry. 

Adapting Apprenticeships for the Long Road 

As part of SEC’s mission “to bridge the gap between potential and opportunity,” wraparound services are offered out of its behavioral and advocacy departments to provide current participants and program graduates with an ongoing support system. These services include behavioral support teams, housing and medical assistance, and long-term monitoring. In addition to supportive services, adaptation is one of SEC’s major priorities making work more accessible for young people with disabilities. 

The center’s team works individually with each participant to ensure that they are not only trained, but also equipped with the tools necessary to complete their work. For example, SEC has sourced adaptive rolling pins from Italy, an adaptive pastry system from France, and even built customized tools with participants so that they can work independently in the role that interests them. 

“It’s about adaptation,” Randee said, reflecting on efforts across the organization. “Everyone deserves a job; we’ve just got to make sure they can get it.”

Kamari’s Road to a Good Job

Kamari Glover learned about the ProStart apprenticeship program through SEC's work with local school districts in Colorado Springs, where SEC provides transition training and meets with high school students about its services. Kamari joined ProStart’s culinary track and is working on expanding their skills in the kitchen. So far, steak is the dish Kamari enjoyed cooking the most, with the trick being “to make sure you’re watching it, so it doesn’t burn.” Kamari’s goal is to continue developing their culinary skills and get a job cooking at the Broadmoor, the original and longest running Forbes five-star hotel in the world. The hotel is located just a few miles away from SEC and also hosts a culinary apprenticeship program. The Broadmoor is one of many businesses in the community that SEC has established a relationship with and has previously hired SEC program graduates. 

Teamwork is a crucial part of SEC’s culinary apprenticeship programs, as cooking in restaurant kitchens requires extensive collaboration and coordination. Reflecting on their time training and learning at SEC, Kamari said a highlight has been the people. They have enjoyed getting to know the other participants and finding friendships in and out of the kitchen, including with fellow apprentices. The teachers and instructors at SEC have also made the program a welcoming and enriching place.

“They are willing to help you if you need help,” Kamari said. “In high school, it was really hard to feel like that even with your special needs, so it was hard to ask for help … but now, here in the community, it’s a lot easier.” 

Kamari’s experiences at SEC and the connections that they have made in the apprenticeship program have prepared them to enter the restaurant industry, bridging the gap between their high school education and their dream career.

Paving New Roads to Sustained, Supportive Jobs

While working hard to provide quality education and supportive services in its current tracks, SEC is also expanding — and urging others to do the same. Randee highlighted how SEC initiates apprenticeship programs by taking advantage of Colorado’s diverse career pathways and funding opportunities. Colorado offers various grants to help organizations like SEC grow its youth-based apprenticeship programs, such as the Colorado RISE Youth Apprenticeship Fund, to “build, expand, or scale evidence- and youth-based apprenticeship models across the state.”

SEC plans to utilize its recent grant awards to develop an apprenticeship program for manufacturing, as well as one for veterinary technicians in partnership with Pikes Peak State College. It is also expanding its culinary apprenticeships into the Denver area. SEC’s outreach efforts have led them to meet and coordinate with similar organizations in states such as Texas and Michigan, sharing best practices and encouraging others to expand and strengthen their curriculums. They have also expanded their local community outreach, hosting social events in Colorado Springs to bring people with disabilities of all ages together and to fundraise for the Special Olympics. 

Driven by its mission to provide young people with the tools needed to thrive, SEC hopes to continue sharing what it has learned about registered apprenticeship programming across the country to improve outcomes for young adults facing barriers to employment.

“It not only helps our people; it helps the whole community,” Randee said. 

To learn more about inclusive apprenticeships, read CAPE-Youth’s policy brief “Expanding Apprenticeships as a Career Pathway for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities” or contact the CAPE-Youth team at info@capeyouth.org

Publish Date: 12/10/2023

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