Apprenticeships: Get Paid While Pursuing Your Career

Man in hardhat with tool belt working on solar panel.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, and skills. They may expect you to have specific credentials (license, certification, etc.).  You have already spent a lot of time and money preparing, and now you want a real job with a paycheck.  It’s time to move on with your life and career. Yes, this approach almost seems to be the norm for finding employment. In fact, people may tell you it the only way to get a good-paying job. Because of this, it is easy to forget other options do exist.  One excellent but often overlooked career path is that of an apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships break the mold of the typical career process by changing the order of the steps involved.

The Typical Job/Career Process

The typical job/career process goes sort of like this. It takes years of your time and your money to become ready to even apply for a job. Next, you try to get a job interview. However, there is no guarantee you will ever land a job in your chosen field or college degree major.

When examined in detail, the typical process looks like this:

Flowchart of the steps for the "typical" career process, showing that the applicant is responsible for acquiring education, work experience, and skills (all at the applicant's expense) before being able to obtain a job interview.

With this approach, the applicant alone must shoulder the entire burden of preparing for a career.  People whose situations may not provide them with the time or money needed to prepare are at a real disadvantage. Besides, not everyone has the desire to sit in a college classroom every day for five, four, or even two years.

How Apprenticeships Differ

How does the apprenticeship approach differ from the typical job process?  With the typical process, you must meet all the requirements (education, experience, skills, and credentials) before most employers will even look at you. Apprenticeships change the order by allowing a person to acquire these while working (see graphic below).  The interview occurs at the beginning of the process, followed by education and training (usually at no cost to the apprentice). Plus, you earn an actual wage while learning and gaining work experience! Finally, completion of an apprenticeship often leads directly to employment.

Flowchart of the steps for an apprenticeship, showing how education, work experience, and skill development are obtained during the program, while being paid. The order of the steps are somewhat reversed from those of the "typical" career process.

Starting the Process

The process begins by completing an application for acceptance into an apprenticeship program.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Each apprenticeship program sponsor identifies the minimum qualifications to apply for a program. The eligible starting age can be no less than 16 years of age; however, most programs require individuals to be at least 18 years of age. Program sponsors also identify additional minimum qualifications, such as education level and the ability to physically perform the essential functions of the job.”  A high school diploma or equivalent often appears as the minimum education requirement for many programs.

Next, applicants take a written test covering basic skills such as math and reading. Test scores play a major role in the selection of apprentices!  Most of the time, you are competing with other individuals to secure one of a limited number of openings.  Smart applicants study and prepare in advance of the test in an effort to maximize their scores.

How does one prepare? A wide selection of study guides and books is available to aid in test preparation. The Pre-Apprentice Training series of study guides by Jack Martin is one example of such a resource. Book stores and online sellers such as Amazon have many other titles available, some written specifically for certain trades.

An online search will also yield practice tests, videos, and other study materials. Also, many colleges, schools, union halls, and community job programs offer apprenticeship test preparation classes. Some of these classes may be offered at a very low cost or even at no charge.

Interview and Ranking

The next step in this process involves an interview for admission to the apprenticeship program.  The interviewers ask about the applicant’s interest in the field, their experience, and so forth. The interviewers then score each applicant based on the answers provided.

The results of the tests, interviews, and often other factors such as military service, past employment, etc. calculate into an overall score for each applicant. Applicants are then ranked by test score which determines who is accepted and in what order. This is why it is important to test and interview well, and preparation can be the key to success.

What’s Next?

Once accepted into an apprenticeship program the individual receives:

  • Formal education by taking specific college or training courses. These courses may or may not be applicable toward a degree. The apprenticeship program or employer typically pays most, if not all, of the cost of this education.
  • Hands-on work experience under the oversight of an experienced tradesperson.
  • On-the-job training to develop the particular skills required for the trade.
  • A paycheck. You actually get paid to learn! Some programs even pay the apprentice for time spent in classroom training outside of regular working hours.
  • Eligibility to obtain the credential specific to the trade, typically a journeyman’s card and/or license.

Note the traditional designation of “journeyman” refers to any person, male or female, who has successfully completed an apprenticeship. In an effort to make the credential more gender-neutral, this is rapidly changing.  It is becoming increasingly common to see the term “journeyperson” or “journeyworker” used in its place.

Apprenticeship Fields

When discussing apprenticeships, most people think of skilled trades usually found in fields such as manufacturing and construction. Traditional skilled trades include positions such as:

Electrician            Plumber               Tool and Die        Carpenter              Diesel Mechanic

Bricklayer            Pipefitter              Machinist             Die Casting           Many Others

Today, apprenticeships are appearing in many other fields. Many of these may not have had such programs in the past. Apprenticeships now exist in areas such as healthcare, information technology, hospitality, and others. Examples include:

Telecom Tech               Paramedic               Baker/Cook                  Pharmacy Assistant

Fiber Optic Tech           Tree Care                Claims Adjuster            Many Others

How Long Does an Apprenticeship Last?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The length of an apprenticeship program can vary depending on the employer, the complexity of the occupation, and the type of program. Registered apprenticeship programs typically range from one year to six years. During the program, the apprentice receives both structured, on-the-job training and job-related education. For each year of the apprenticeship, the apprentice will normally receive 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, and a recommended minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction.”

Who Oversees Apprenticeship Programs?

When considering a particular apprenticeship program, be sure to check it out.  Although not legally required, most programs register with one of two governmental entities. About half register with the federal government through the Office of Apprenticeship at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).  The other half register with the Department of Labor in the state in which the program resides. This is because some states have opted to oversee apprenticeship programs themselves (see map below). Either way, a program is considered “registered.” For questions regarding a specific state, check the U.S. DOL website here for a list of contacts.

A map graphic from the U.S. Department of Labor indicating, by state for the year 2017, which states have federal oversight for apprenticeships and which have state oversight.

Although less common, legitimate non-registered programs do exist. However, selecting a registered program (federal or state) is a good idea for several reasons.  First, it is your assurance the apprenticeship is set up to meet established quality standards. You know you will receive a prescribed amount of structured training. Finally, it ensures there is a permanent and official record that you completed a recognized apprenticeship. Upon completion of a program, the DOL will issue you a “Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship.”

Suppose you completed your apprenticeship in a very good but unregistered program. What would happen if the employer under whom you trained went out of business or the business owner died? It happens. Or, what if you want to move and work in another state? Without a permanent and official record you might have no verifiable proof of ever having completed an apprenticeship.

Financial Benefits

An apprenticeship is a real financial value in several ways. For example, most programs provide any required education without cost. No student loan debt! The apprentice receives a paycheck while gaining work experience and learning skills.

Here’s another real benefit. Although each program is different, the new journeyperson usually has an excellent chance of finding a job.  Remember, training an apprentice requires a huge investment on the part of companies and unions to cover the cost of education, training, and wages. For this reason, programs usually don’t take on new apprentices unless they see a need for more journeyworkers in the near future. The employer with whom the apprentice trained may offer him or her a permanent position upon successful completion of the program. In some trades, employers obtain workers through a local union hall which maintains a pool of qualified journey-level individuals.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, on a national basis, the typical apprentice earns an average of about $15 per hour to start. After that, the worker may receive incremental raises during the program. The average wage for a person who completes an apprenticeship translates to about $60,000 annually.  With overtime, these annual wages may be even higher.

Please note average wages for various trades do vary, sometimes quite a bit, based on location.  For example, the chart below shows the difference in the annual mean wages for electricians, on a state-by-state basis, as of 2017.

A map graphic from the U.S. Department of Labor showing the mean average wages for electricians, by state, for the year 2017.

Apprenticeships are on the Rise

Given the benefits, along with the increase of programs in non-traditional fields, it is not surprising the number of apprentices is on the rise.  Nationally, the number of apprentices has increased 42% just since 2013 (see chart below).

A graphic from the U.S. Department of Labor illustrating the national growth in the number of apprentices (42%) since 2013.

Where Are the Apprenticeships?

So, where are all the apprentices and programs located throughout the country?  The charts below show, by state, the number of active apprentices and apprenticeship programs.

A map graphic from the U.S. Department of Labor indicating the number of active apprentices, by state, for the year 2017.

A map graphic from the U.S. Department of Labor indicating the number of active apprenticeship programs, by state, for the year 2017.

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

  • 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 which use skilled trades
  • High schools, colleges, and community jobs programs
  • A tradesperson you may know

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Featured image courtesy of skeeze/pixabay

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