Apprenticeships: Shaking Up the Typical Job/Career Process

Most job hunters are all too familiar with the “typical” process for entering a new career or finding a job:  you walk into a job interview and they want to know about your education, experience, skills, and any required credentials (license, certification, etc.) which you already possess.  You have spent a great deal of time – and money – to get to this point, and now you want a real job, with a real paycheck.  After all, you may have racked up a good chunk of student debt, and now you need that job to both start repaying it and to move on with your life and career.

However, the difficulty with the typical process is that it places the entire burden for job and/or career preparation, along with all associated expenses, squarely on the job applicant.  Go get ready, show ‘em what you’ve got, and if they like what they see, maybe you will be given a job.  Although there are variations, the typical process and its individual steps are similar to the one illustrated below.

Block diagram of the typical job/career process.

Because this typical career process is so common and sometimes beat into our heads by parents and others, it is easy to forget that alternatives do exist.  One often overlooked career path is that involving skilled trade apprenticeships, such as those for electricians, plumbers, tool and die makers, HVAC, carpenters, masons, pipefitters, just to name a few, and there are many others.  Apprenticeship programs break the mold of the typical career process by changing the order of the steps involved (see below).

Block diagram of the typical apprenticeship job/career process.

Unlike the typical job process where one must usually already have all the prerequisite education, experience, skills, and credentials before most employers will even consider an individual for employment, apprenticeships change the order by placing the application and interview process upfront.  The process usually begins with a written test and an interview to determine which applicants possess certain basic skill sets, along with evaluating the willingness and ability of the individuals to both learn and work.  Smart apprenticeship applicants will do some preparation in advance of the test, as often the tests examine skills such as math and reading, in an effort maximize the score received and thus enhance their chances of being selected for the program.  Apprenticeship test preparation books are available for those wishing to self-study, and many colleges and schools offer preparation classes (sometimes at no charge).

Once accepted into an apprenticeship program, the individual receives:

  • Formal education by taking prescribed college or training courses (although the courses may or may not necessarily be aimed at a degree); these are typically paid for by the apprenticeship program.
  • Hands-on work experience under the oversight of an experienced tradesperson (journeyman or master), while receiving a paycheck. You actually get paid to learn!
  • On-the-job training to develop the specific skills needed.
  • A credential (or eligibility to obtain the credential) for the field of work, such as a journeyman’s card or license. In an effort to keep credentials gender-neutral, it is becoming more common to see the term “journeyperson” used rather than the traditional “journeyman” designation.

The duration of an apprenticeship varies by type of trade and is usually based on completing a minimum number of required hours.  These hours translate into some programs being as short as two years, while others might take five years to complete; a typical program is about 3-4 years.

Depending on the structure of the apprenticeship program, upon completion, the new tradesperson may even be assured of a permanent job, or at least be included in a pool of eligible, qualified candidates for openings which may arise in the near future.

When considering an apprenticeship program, make sure it is registered with either the U.S. Department of Labor, or in some states, the Department of Labor for that particular state.  This is important to ensure the program meets established quality standards and that there is a permanent, governmental record of having completed a formal apprenticeship.  Without such a permanent and official record, should the employer under whom you trained go out of business, you would have no valid proof of ever having completed the apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships represent an exceptional opportunity and value when one considers the formal education component is usually provided without cost to the student and the apprentice gains practical, real-world experience and learns skills, all while being paid a wage, and in the end, a job is frequently almost assured.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the typical apprentice on a national basis earns an average of about $15 per hour when beginning a program, with incremental raises thereafter.  Once the apprenticeship is completed, the new journeyman averages about $50,000 per year (perhaps even more with overtime).  Please note national average wages for the various trades do vary, sometimes considerably, by geographical location.  For example, the chart below illustrates the difference in the annual mean wages for electricians, on a state-by-state basis, as of 2016.

Although this article specifically discussed apprenticeships in the area of “traditional” skilled trades, you should be aware apprenticeships are now appearing in many non-traditional fields as well, such as healthcare, landscaping, computers, protective services, and many others.  Nationally, the growth of apprenticeship programs is on rise, as illustrated in the chart below.

Where are the apprenticeships located?  The chart below shows the distribution of apprentices, by state, throughout the country.

If you would like to learn more about apprenticeships, check out the following resources:

  • The U.S Department of Labor (
  • The Department of Labor for your state
  • The local union hall for the trade of interest (electrical, plumbing, etc.)
  • Employers
  • Colleges and high schools
  • A journeyman tradesperson you may know



Featured image courtesy of Greg Lilly – flickr


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