Apprenticeships: Earn While You Learn

Woman working on a device.Why an apprenticeship? Job hunters are all too familiar with the typical process followed when entering a new career or finding a job. You apply, hope to get a job interview, and then the employer asks about your education, experience, and skills. Employers may also expect you to have specific credentials (license, certification, etc.). You have already spent considerable time and money preparing (typically by attending college), and now, you want a job with a paycheck. It’s time to move on with your life and career.

Yes, this approach frequently seems the norm for finding employment. In fact, you may have been constantly told your entire life that it is the only way to get a good-paying job. Because of this well-intentioned indoctrination, it is easy to forget or not even be aware that other good and valid options are available.

An excellent but often overlooked career path that can lead to a good-paying career is that of an apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships break the mold of the typical career process by completely changing the steps involved.

The Typical Job/Career Process

The typical job/career process goes like this. It takes years of your time and your money to prepare before you can even apply for a job. Next, you do a job search and try to get an interview. Even then, as many college grads have discovered, there is no guarantee you will ever even land a job in your chosen field or college degree major.

When mapped out in detail, the typical process goes like this:

Typical Career Path Flowchart

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

How Apprenticeships Differ

How does the apprenticeship approach differ from the typical job process? As shown above, with the typical process you must meet all the requirements (education, experience, skills, and credentials) before most employers will even consider you for a position. Apprenticeships change the order by allowing a person to obtain all these requirements while working in the program and getting paid. The application and interview occur upfront when applying for entry into a program, followed by the necessary education and training (usually at no cost to the apprentice). Plus, you earn actual wages while learning and gaining work experience! Finally, completion of an apprenticeship often leads directly to employment.

Apprenticeship Process Flowchart


How Do I Find Available Apprenticeship Opportunities?

If you have a specific trade in mind (e.g., electrician, plumber, ironworker, machinist, etc.), check with the local labor union in your area. These unions will know when the open application period for new apprentices will occur and how to apply. Another resource is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship Job Finder website where you can search nationally through thousands of opportunities by occupation and/or geographical location.

Starting the Process

The process begins by completing an application for acceptance into an apprenticeship program. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “An apprentice must be at least 16 years old unless applicable law requires a higher age.” However, many programs do require an applicant to be at least 18 years of age. A high school diploma or equivalent often appears as the minimum education requirement. Other requirements (such as certain physical abilities or high school math classes) may also be applicable if necessary for the job and are not discriminatory under federal law. A drug test may also be required.


Next, applicants typically take a written aptitude test covering basic skills such as math and reading comprehension. Test scores play a major role in the selection of apprentices! Remember, most apprenticeship programs have only a very limited number of openings each year, and you will be competing with many other qualified individuals to secure one of those highly sought-after spots. Wise applicants study and prepare in advance to help maximize their scores.

How does one prepare? An online search will yield practice tests, videos, and other study materials specific to each trade. Also, many colleges, schools, union halls, and community job programs offer apprenticeship test preparation classes; some may be available at a very low cost or even at no charge. Apprenticeship study guides are also available through bookstores and online sellers such as Amazon.

Interview and Ranking

The next step in this process involves an interview for admission to the apprenticeship program. The interviewers ask each applicant a set of questions, usually inquiring about their interest in the particular trade, their experience, and so forth. The interviewers then score each applicant based on the answers provided.

The results of the aptitude tests, interviews, and sometimes other factors such as military service, past employment, etc. are calculated into an overall score for each applicant. Applicants are then ranked by these overall scores to determine who is offered entry into the program and in what order they will be invited. This is why it is important to test and interview well, and preparation in advance can be the key to success.

What Happens Once I’m in a Program?

Once accepted into an apprenticeship program the individual receives:

  • Trade-specific education, such as training courses or a limited number of specific college classes. These may or may not be transferable or applicable toward a college 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 terminology 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 the typical skilled trades usually found in fields such as manufacturing and construction. Traditional skilled trades include positions such as:

Electrician            Plumber               Diemaker             Carpenter              Diesel Mechanic

Bricklayer            Pipefitter              Machinist             Ironworker            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, complexity of the occupation, industry, and the type of program.” The length of an apprenticeship program typically ranges 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 minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction.

Who Oversees Apprenticeship Programs?

When considering any apprenticeship program, be sure to check it out. Although not always required, most programs register with one of two governmental entities. Of all programs, about half register with the federal government through the Office of Apprenticeship (OA) 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. These state-operated entities are known as State Apprenticeship Agencies (SAA). For questions regarding a specific state, visit the U.S. Department of Labor website and click on a state name for contact information.

Apprenticeship Program Oversight by State Graphic


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 program is set up to meet established quality standards. You know you will receive a prescribed amount of structured training. Also, it ensures there is a permanent and official record that you completed a recognized apprenticeship. Upon completion of a registered program, you will be issued a “Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship.”

Suppose you have completed your apprenticeship in a very good but unregistered program. What would happen if the employer under whom you trained (the “sponsor”) went out of business? 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. Always check the details of any program, but when a sponsor meets specific requirements, their registered program will have “reciprocity” whereby other states must recognize the apprenticeship.

Financial Benefits

An apprenticeship is a real financial value in several ways. For example, most programs provide any required education without cost. No out-of-pocket expense or student loan debt! Even better, the apprentice receives a paycheck while gaining work experience and learning skills.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an apprentice starts off earning about half of what a fully qualified worker makes and receives pay increases as they advance in their training.

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 them 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.

Please note that average wages for various trades do vary, sometimes quite a bit, based on geographical location. For example, the chart below shows the difference in the annual mean wages for electricians, on a state-by-state basis, as of 2021.

Electrician Annual Mean Wages Chart 2021

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 by 64% since 2012, although, as might be expected, the COVID-19 pandemic did cause a decrease in 2020 and 2021.

Growth of Apprenticeships Chart

Where Are the Apprenticeships?

Where are the apprentices and apprenticeship programs located throughout the country? The charts below show, by state, the number of active apprentices and apprenticeship programs as of 2021.

Map of Active Apprentices by State 2021

Map of Active Apprenticeship Programs 2021

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

  • The ApprenticeshipUSA site of 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 that use skilled trades
  • High schools and colleges
  • Community jobs programs
  • A tradesperson you may know

Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts? Please leave a comment!

Featured image courtesy of Mikhail Nilov

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