What is an apprenticeship?

Given that student loan debt in the U.S. tops $1.2 trillion and the average graduate owed over $30,000 in 2015, it's no surprise topics like how to start paying student loans are necessary.

However, if you're still in school or are still saving for college (or you have kids or grandkids in that category), there's an option for reducing or eliminating the amount of student loans you take out: apprenticeship programs.

What is an Apprenticeship Program?

Apprentice in construction with mentor

The basic idea behind apprenticeships is that students/apprentices learn by doing. While apprenticeships used to be a very common way for people to train for a wide variety of professions, as higher education became ubiquitous, the apprenticeship model fell out of fashion.

However, both universities and employers are starting to recognize that practicing skills in a real-life setting reinforces classroom learning, makes students more employable upon graduation, and can reduce student indebtedness. #Win-win-win.

How Do Apprenticeship Programs Work?

There are two main types of apprenticeship programs:

Trade Apprenticeships

Trade apprenticeships prepare you for careers for which a bachelor's degree is not required. Though they used to be the most common form of apprenticeship, they have become less popular in recent decades as society focused on higher education over careers in the trades and vocations.

Ironically, however, the promotion of college degrees by the government and institutions of higher education resulted in labor shortages in the trades. This has driven salaries up in many cases, since demand for those services has not been reduced.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's apprenticeship website, careers in a variety of fields rely on the trade apprenticeship model. Here is a list of such careers along with the mean annual wage as of 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Auto mechanic – $36,610
  • Carpentry – $39,940
  • Construction – Wages depend on specialty, though they seem to range from $30,000 to $45,000. (Glaziers made $37,610, brick masons made $44,950, heavy-equipment operators made $40,980, and roofers made $35,290.)
  • Electrician – $49,840
  • HVAC installation, repair, and maintenance – $43,640
  • Pipe-fitting and plumbing – $49,140
  • Solar photovoltaic installation, repair, and maintenance – $37,900
  • Truck driving – $38,200

Though these salaries represent working professionals who have completed training programs and obtained any necessary certifications, the Department of Labor estimates that working apprentices in its Registered Apprenticeship program make $15/hour, on average, while being trained. That's $31,200 per year if you work full time.

While many such careers require physical strength and odd hours, pursuing a career in the trades while you are young (and as strong and resilient as you are likely to get) may help you save money for college. Then you can go to school and reinvent your career once you no longer find long hours of physical labor appealing.

(In March 2012, the state of Washington's Department of Labor & Industries guide reported that starting apprentices earned $17.59/hour plus benefits and pension. In addition, the guide states that “apprenticeship is a terrific route for any job seeker” and that “many adults in established careers make a switch to apprenticeship.”)

Academic Apprenticeships: Blending School and Work

A second type of apprenticeship, and one that is becoming more common, is the blending of an apprenticeship requirement with a traditional degree program. These programs may take different forms:

  • Working full or part time while a student, and taking longer to complete the degree
  • Being a full-time student during the academic year and working as an apprentice during the summers

Your school/degree program might require you to complete an apprenticeship program (meaning you earn while in school and need fewer loans). Alternatively, your job might hire you without a degree or certification and pay some or all of the cost for you to obtain them (meaning your tuition is paid as a benefit of your employment).

In December 2014, the Obama administration outlined a plan to help post-secondary institutions incorporate apprenticeships into the student aid process. This plan specified that:

  • “If the apprenticeship is part of an academic program that participates in the Federal student aid programs, the institution may provide aid to an eligible student, including for the apprenticeship portion of the program.
  • “An institution may use its Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program funds to pay the training wages for otherwise eligible FWS students employed as apprentices, even when the apprenticeship is not part of the student's eligible academic program.
  • “Under the FWS Job Location and Development Program, an institution, or a group of institutions, may use a portion of their FWS Federal allocation to locate and develop off-campus apprenticeship opportunities for students.”

Further, the administration made $100 million in grants available to “expand registered apprenticeship programs in high-skilled, high-growth industries like healthcare, biotechnology, information technology and advanced manufacturing.”

In September 2015, the Department of Labor announced that it had awarded $176 million to 46 grantees that included institutions of higher education, cities, and trade associations to expand this program.

How Do You Get an Apprenticeship in the U.S.?

  1. If you are interested in the trades, you can start by tracking down the relevant trade organization or union's website for more information on apprenticeships offered or endorsed by that organization.
  2. Additionally, the Department of Labor website has a searchable database powered by Glassdoor that is searchable by geographic region. Because the DOL coordinates with state apprenticeship agencies, your state government website may have a similar tool.
  3. If you are hoping to work while pursuing a degree, then your college or university is a great first stop for information. Note that the availability of academic internships will vary widely by major. Your best bets for majors that incorporate apprenticeships include:
    1. High-tech majors like engineering and computers/IT
    2. Healthcare-related majors like nursing
    3. Business degrees like management or retail and consumer science
  4. Even if the school or program you are interested in doesn't offer formal apprenticeships, you can seek out paid internships that fulfill a similar function (even if they go by a different name).
  5. The Federal Work-Study program also tries to place students in positions that are related to their majors.
  6. Finally, you might start by working for a company in an entry-level position that doesn't require a bachelor's degree but that offers continuing education as an employee benefit.

Final Thoughts

Most students choose a major that sounds interesting and then learn more about it and find out what kind of jobs require that degree. Going the apprenticeship route may require reverse-engineering the process a bit: Find out what type of majors and careers require or offer apprenticeship programs and then select the one that interests you the most (or that you are capable of, and/or that pays the most — whatever your criteria may be).

Have you ever investigated or participated in a degree program or career path that required an internship? Do you think the skilled trades are poised to make a comeback? Share your experiences and opinions in the comments below!

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