After spending 15 years in accounting, Amanda Widhalm needed a change.
“It just did not feed my soul the way I wanted it to,” she explained. “I’ve always loved animals and I finally decided that it was time to go back to school.”
But for Widhalm, college looks different than a traditional classroom. As a veterinary technology apprentice, she’s learning alongside working professionals at the Redstone Animal Hospital in Littleton, Colorado.
“My first day, I got to see absolutely everything that happens,” said Widhalm, who’s the mother to a two-year-old. “Being an apprentice allows me to be hands-on and learn everyday practical stuff that we’re going to be doing in our jobs even after we graduate.”
Being an apprentice allows me to be hands-on and learn everyday practical stuff that we’re going to be doing in our jobs even after we graduate.”
Widhalm is one of 15 students currently enrolled in Community College of Denver’s (CCD) veterinary technology apprenticeship program. Launched in August of 2020, the initiative has already trained 12 apprentices at seven clinics with more industry partnerships in the works.
Jennifer Gunther, CCD’s veterinary technology clinical coordinator and apprenticeship manager, helped develop the program with students like Widhalm in mind. Apprentices earn a wage while working toward their associate degree, easing the balance between work and school.
“From the day that they start their academic training, they’re also employed in the veterinary clinic. So, everything they learn, they are applying in a real-world setting,” Gunther said.
Those skills include anything from handling animals and drawing blood to administering vaccines and anesthesia, says apprentice Devin Sanders. Like Widhalm, she found the “earn and learn” model attractive as a new parent looking to break into the industry.
“It’s unique. You get to do it and study at the same time,” she said. “All the professors at CCD have been amazing.”
‘Beneficial on Both Sides’
Thanks to this hands-on experience, apprentices have excelled in their certification exams. The first two cohorts boasted 100% and 85% pass rates, respectively, well outpacing the national average of 67%.
“We’ve all worked super hard to make this program successful. Receiving recognition shows it’s paying off,” Gunther said.
CCD leaders also hope the program will make a dent in the veterinary care shortage across the state. Positions for veterinarians are expected to grow by almost 75% within the decade, according to the Colorado Talent Pipeline Report.
As a veterinarian’s “right hand,” technicians can take on more routine work in a clinic and free up doctors for complex tasks, Gunther said. The apprenticeship is also “stackable,” so students can continue their education and eventually earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. One CCD apprentice is already on that path, studying at Colorado State University’s esteemed veterinary program.
These early outcomes excite Shannon Burkhalter, CCD’s veterinary technology department chair.
“I see the apprenticeship as our future,” she said. “It’s so beneficial on both sides, and we really think this is how most of our students will be learning eventually.”