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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There are 8 comments to "What is an apprenticeship?".

  1. Emma says 02 November 2015 at 05:32

    Does the U.S. academic system not offer co-op programs? They seem to be growing in popularity elsewhere in the world.

    Full disclosure: I work for a school that offers co-op and I went through a co-op program myself. Here’s what to look for:

    – employment rate. What percentage of co-op students get a placement each term? (Look for high 80s and 90s) What’s the average employment rate within six months after graduation? (Again, look for 90s)

    – what programs are available? (many schools offer programs spanning all of their faculties, from arts to engineering)

    – what salary can you expect in your field and level of study/experience? (You’ll earn more the more experience you get)

    – where do students get jobs (with which companies?) and what kinds of jobs? (i.e. junior developer, social media coordinator, etc.) You should be able to find out how many employers a school works with and how many placements they handle per year.

    – what support systems are available for you and for employers? (co-op programs offer professional development, job searching and ranking, interview prep, resume coaching, actively recruiting new employers, etc.)

    – how many work terms can you complete? Some schools do one long work term, others do 4-6 so you can explore different career options and companies.

    – what does it cost? (Sorry, but running a co-op system isn’t free! There’s usually an addition fee on top of your tuition)

    For me, it was totally worth it because not only did it help me pay for school, I learned a lot of skills that got me a job when I graduated and helped me build a network early on. (And yes, I still keep in touch with people from early in my career).

    GRS editors, if you’re interested in more information, I’d be happy to share. (I notice GRS never mentions co-op programs let alone discusses them in detail.) If anyone has questions, I’d be happy to answer in the comments.

    • Jeff says 02 November 2015 at 17:36

      Co-Ops exist in the USA but unlike internships that happen in the summer co-ops tend to happen during the academic year and one of the trade-offs is that you can’t take as many classes and take considerably longer to complete your degree.

      Also like internships they aren’t very plentiful, the recession caused both to dry up a lot. I graduated in 2010, in the classes a year or two behind mine almost everyone had at least one internship under their belt, for mine it was like 1 in 10 students instead. They are coming back now but even a decent sized company might only have 2 or 3 going at a time so competition is still fierce.

  2. Rocky says 02 November 2015 at 05:50

    Thanks for this helpful article! This is a critical shift that our culture needs to make. For decades now, we have discouraged careers that “look like work”. If you were an “A” student in high school then you were steered away from the trades. We have a lot of biology and sociology majors that wish they would have learned some skills that would actually put money in their bank account.

    I really like your final thought about choosing a degree path. The only thing in a student’s mind is picking a degree that sounds interesting. After all, at the National Honor Society awards banquet, they wouldn’t want to announce that they were going to attend a Trade School, Community College, join an Apprenticeship Program, or work a job to fund their own education. We have pressured our students to make poor financial decisions. Making a college decision based on being able to pay cash for it is a powerful start to a successful and meaningful career.

    Thanks again for writing this post. It’s going to make a difference!

  3. Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor says 02 November 2015 at 06:23

    There are so many lucrative fields that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but they are not the types of jobs that you hear about in high school career planning lessons. I also love the idea of finding out whether you’re actually interested in a field before committing four or more years of schools and tens of thousands in debt to the cause.

  4. Carla says 02 November 2015 at 10:50

    I wonder if they’re jobs/apprenticeships that are not so “masculine” or labor oriented. I may not have wondered that 20 years ago but being in my late 30s, I know most of those jobs would have physically burnt me out long before the age of 40. Having a mother that was nurse and sustained multiple injuries in the 42 years she worked in that field, I’m very mindful of the physical toll “physical” jobs can do to a body.

  5. maxman says 04 November 2015 at 08:48

    The best way is to not takeout a loan..

  6. Kelli B says 06 November 2015 at 07:08

    Good article. Apprenticeships are a great but rarely talked about opportunity. There are lots of jobs that can have an apprenticeship…. including jobs that are so manual such as in the computer world. The trick is finding a person or company that is willing to train you.

  7. Stephanie says 18 November 2015 at 09:01

    “Reinvent yourself” after completing a full-time apprenticeship in a trade? Yeah, there’s definitely a bias in this country that puts “blue-collar” jobs on a lower tier than “white-collar” ones. Trades are just as viable and often higher paying than academic or computer jobs, and give you far more control over your career. (Once you obtain your licenses, you can be your own boss and make your own rules.)

    If you think physical labor is too demanding to do over the course of a career lifetime, well, so is deskwork. You can wreck your back, your eyes, and your overall health staring at a computer screen.

    It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. If you’re interested in the trades, don’t let society tell you they are of lesser value than a college degree or a white-collar lifestyle!

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