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Community College of Denver Leads Nation With New Vet Tech Apprenticeship Program

Laura James, veterinary technician apprentice
Stephanie Daniel
Laura James, a veterinary technician apprentice, monitors a cat’s vitals during dental surgery at VCA All Pets Animal Hospital in Lafayette.

Gov. Jared Polis declared November Colorado Apprenticeship Month in recognition of the role these programs play in helping people gain in-demand skills while earning a paycheck. Apprenticeships are even more important now as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. This includes a new community college program and the industry it’s branching into.

Laura James opens a kennel door, kneels down and gingerly rubs the head of a five-month-old brown pit bull.

“He’s coming out of anesthesia, we monitored him until he was awake,” she says. “We just check on him periodically as well.”

The puppy, Apache, was neutered a few hours earlier.

“How you doing buddy? You doing good? Yeah,” she says soothingly to Apache.

James is a veterinary technician apprentice at VCA All Pets Animal Hospital in Lafayette. She’s been there for about three months and is learning the job by working closely with other vet techs.

“Right now, we’re focusing on handling and restraints,” she says. “But we will move into giving vaccines, drawing blood, anesthesia monitoring and such.”

The apprenticeship is part of the new Veterinary Technology Apprenticeship Program at Community College of Denver. The program is the first of its kind in the country.

“It’s a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Labor, the Community College of Denver, our employers and then our students,” said Jennifer Gunther, the program apprenticeship manager

The program started in August with nine students, including James. They work at a veterinary hospital, like VCA, about 30 hours a week while completing their coursework through online modules and a weekly meeting.

“The goal of the program is to really allow our students to earn wages while they're learning and to become a credentialed veterinary technician,” said Gunther.

Over the course of two years, students will get at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. The hospitals they work at benefit too, said Gunther.

“They pay them, give them wage increases, they train them so ideally their hope is that they're going to be able to retain them as an employee,” she said.

Veterinary Technology Apprentice Program class at Community College of Denver
Stephanie Daniel
Students in the new Veterinary Technology Apprenticeship Program learn about large animals during a class at Community College of Denver.

Gov. Polis declared November Colorado Apprenticeship Month in recognition of the role these programs play in helping people gain in-demand skills while earning a paycheck at the same time.

The Veterinary Technician apprenticeship is one of over 200 federally registered programs in the state. To receive this designation, a program must incorporate nearly two dozen elements required by federal regulation. For example, an apprenticeship must last for at least one year.

“Apprenticeship programs are continuing to increase,” said Dudley Light, a regional direction for the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Apprenticeship. He oversees the 11 states in Region IV, including Colorado.

During the 2019 fiscal year, nearly 25,000 apprenticeship programs were active nationwide. There were also 3,133 new programs, which is a 128% growth from 2009.

“We haven’t moved away from the foundation which has been the construction trades, but we have expanded into new industries,” he said.

These new industries including information technology, transportation, logistics and health care. For every dollar a sponsor invests into an apprenticeship program, Light said they get about a $1.49 back, and the return for the federal government is about $27.

“You set out with employers and they realize that at the end of the day they're going to get employees that are more loyal to the company because they realize they've trained them in a particular career not just a handful of job tasks," he said.

Laura James works at VCA All Pets Hospital Lafayette three days a week. She assists the veterinary team with a variety of tasks including monitoring an unconscious cat who is getting dental surgery. She has her ear close to the cat’s mouth, listening for sounds. James and a longtime veterinary technician are trying to figure out if the endotracheal tube is leaking oxygen.

“It’s really, really faint,” she says. “It’s the faintest it’s been.”

VCA has four hospitals participating in CCD’s Veterinary Technology Apprenticeship program and has hired seven students.

“There is a very, very high need for good vet techs,” said Amelia Nuss, hospital manager for the Boulder and Lafayette locations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected veterinary technician jobs will grow 16 percent from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Most veterinary technology students enroll in a traditional program where the schoolwork comes first followed by a short, unpaid internship.

But this approach doesn’t always work.

“I have definitely seen techs get all the way through tech school, start working as a tech and then quit because they didn't realize what they were getting into,” said Nuss.

Veterinary technicians have a lot of responsibilities from taking x-rays to drawing blood, plus end-of-life care. Mental health in the veterinary field has been a concern for years, said Nuss, and it has a high suicide rate.

“I really felt that if I could get some of these apprentices in my hospital that I would be able to support them and help prepare them to have a successful career in veterinary medicine,” she said.

CCD will expand the apprenticeship program for the 2021 fall semester with a goal of enrolling more students and partnering with more veterinary hospitals.

So far, James is happy with the program. But she has wanted to work with animals ever since she visited a manatee rescue center as a kid.

“What drew my passion was the hands-on care, administering care and talking with families about how to best care for their animals,” she said. “And recommending how they could grow together as a family.

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