Apprenticeships: Get Paid While You Learn

Apprenticeships are a crucial training tool for a variety of skilled trades. Apprentices typically learn most of what they need to know to perform their craft while working under the supervision of journey-level tradesmen. However, true mastery of their craft often comes from mandatory classroom instruction that delves into topics such as jobsite safety, building codes, OSHA regulations, technical documentation and blueprints, and soft skills such as communication, teamwork and work ethic.

This guide covers everything potential apprentices might need to know, such as key industries that offer apprenticeships, the main benefits of completing an apprenticeship, and expert insight into what apprentice training programs deliver and why they are an important career development tool for skilled trades workers.

What are Apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships have been a valuable tool for training new craftspeople for thousands of years. Ancient Romans were among the first to organize craftsmen into groups to ensure the standards and quality of their trades. Apprentices are paid to work under the supervision of journey-level craftspeople, but they also typically are required to complete unpaid classroom instruction. For instance, curriculum for apprentices in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America covers big topics such as print reading, hazardous materials, green building, as well as hands-on subjects such as cutting stair treads and roofing rafters. Apprenticeships are basically a paid scholarship, where the study is highly focused on one subject.

Why are Apprenticeships So Valuable?

Just like in ancient times, apprenticeships help ensure a pipeline of competent skilled trades workers. They also provide in-depth instruction in technical areas that can’t be fully covered and discussed during the hectic pace of a typical workday. Apprenticeships also help increase retention. According to AmericanProgress.org, apprentices tend to stay longer with companies that are willing to invest time and money into their career development.

Who are Apprenticeships Meant For?

Apprenticeships are for workers new to a field who need to learn and increase their skills so they can boost their pay and increase their worth and contributions on the jobsite or workplace. This work arrangement allows for workers to learn a valuable trade while actually working in the field. Apprenticeships are for both men and women – although ironworking is a male-dominated industry, there are apprenticeships for women ironworkers as well. Apprentices should be highly coachable, eager, willing to learn, and able to follow instructions.

What Should You Look for in an Apprenticeship?

Apprentices should seek programs that provide opportunities for career advancement and better pay as their knowledge and skills increase. Programs should include a mix of hands-on learning and instruction from an expert in the field. Some programs are paired with local community colleges and trade schools, and this is something you may want to look for as well when selecting an apprenticeship program.

Industries & Careers Offering Apprenticeships

There are more than 22,000 formal apprenticeship programs in the U.S. According to the Department of Labor, there were 533,607 registered apprentices in fiscal year 2017, including more than 190,000 new apprentices. The section below highlights some of the top careers for apprentices and includes key insight into potential careers, job responsibilities and much more.

  • Construction

    This sector is primarily focused on the construction of buildings but also includes construction of bridges, roadways and many other related areas of work. More than 7 million people were employed in construction jobs in 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Potential careers include working as a carpenter, electrician, ironworker, or plumber. Carpenters typically work in residential framing and finish carpentry or construct formwork for structural concrete. Carpentry work usually is performed outdoors, but finish work is the exception. Carpentry apprenticeships usually run for four years and can help workers excel in the technical aspects of the field, such as reading blueprints, layout, and use of measuring equipment and software. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of carpenters is projected to grow by 8 percent through 2026. Journey level carpenters averaged $45,170 per year in May of 2017.

  • Automotive

    This industry primarily deals with vehicle repair. Jobs include working as an automotive mechanic, automotive technician, or diesel mechanic. More than 923,000 people were employed in repair and maintenance jobs in 2017. Diesel mechanics work on any type of diesel vehicle, from passenger cars and trucks to busses and large commercial trucks. Apprenticeship requirements vary, and some are offered by diesel manufacturers. The Cummins diesel apprenticeship program, for instance, culminates in an Associate of Applied Science Degree. Apprentices earn at least 50 percent of journey-level wages while in training and can earn an average of $46,360 per year upon completion. The field is expected to grow 9 percent through 2026.

  • Hospitality

    The hospitality industry includes food preparation and related jobs such as baker or pastry chef. More than 16 million people were employed in hospitality and leisure jobs in 2018. Chefs and head cooks oversee and prepare food at restaurants and similar establishments. Apprenticeships can run for a total of 4,000 hours and take two years to complete. Apprentices gain insight into key aspects of the trade not learned in the kitchen, such as nutrition, beverage management, and leadership skills. Employment of chefs and head cooks is expected to increase 10 percent through 2026, and they averaged just under $46,000 in May of 2017.

  • Energy

    The U.S. Energy industry includes oil, coal, natural gas, renewables, and other sources. Jobs in the industry include solar photovoltaic installers, power plant and substation operators, wind turbine technicians, and power line maintenance and installation. Apprenticeships can vary by energy specialty but many last for three to four years. Apprenticeships for line workers blend worksite training with technical instruction in electricity, fiber optics, electronics and other key aspects of the field. Employment of power line installers is expected to increase 14 percent through 2026, and median annual salaries for journey-level workers was just under $70,000 in May of 2017.

  • Advanced Manufacturing

    Advanced manufacturing includes hundreds of diverse industries, from making batteries for Tesla’s electric cars to milling high-strength fasteners for the aerospace industry. Careers in the industry include CNC programming, machinist, tool and die making, and industrial maintenance and repair. CNC machine programmers set up computer-numeric-controlled machinery to make precision parts and tools. Apprenticeships are commonly offered through community colleges and vocational schools and often culminate in an associate’s degree. The BLS reports that there were more than 468,000 people employed as machinists and tool and die making in 2016, and the industry is expected to add 2,700 jobs through 2026. Median annual salaries were $52,480 in May of 2017.

  • Healthcare

    Healthcare and healthcare support operations are a major source of employment across the U.S. A few of the hundreds of different jobs in the industry include registered nurses, paramedics, pharmacy technicians and nursing aides. Apprenticeships can separate workers from others by providing training in advanced technologies that are changing the industry, such as electronic health records, and can result in higher wages and increased career opportunities. Companies such as CVS offer registered apprenticeships for pharmacy assistants, who primarily help take orders and fill prescriptions at pharmacies. Employment of pharmacy technicians is expected to grow by 47,600 new positions (12 percent) through 2026, and median annual salaries for pharmacy assistants in May of 2017 was $31,750.

Apprenticeship FAQs

The following are some frequently asked questions about apprenticeships.

  • How long do apprenticeships run for?

    Apprenticeships vary in length, but most typically last between one and six years depending upon the industry, according to the Department of Labor.

  • How much classroom instruction do apprentices receive?

    According to the Department of Labor, apprenticeships should include a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction for every 2,000 hours of workplace training.

  • How do I enroll in an apprenticeship program?

    Applicants typically work with a dedicated apprentice navigator or coordinator to enroll in an approved apprenticeship program. Some programs may be signed up through a local community college or trade school, while others may be signed up through a local agency. You will probably be asked to fill out an application and supply a resume as part of your application.

  • What happens if I don’t complete my apprenticeship?

    In ancient times apprentices were bonded to a master for a set length of time. Today, however, apprentices are free to switch careers if they determine the work is not suitable or to their liking. Apprentices who received employer-sponsored training may be required to pay back their employer if they leave a program early.

  • How do I know if I qualify for an apprenticeship?

    Apprentices in hazardous jobs must be at least 18 years old and be able to physically perform the work. Other minimum qualifications are determined by various apprenticeship programs. Typically, potential apprentices must have a high school diploma or GED. There may be other requirements such as a clean criminal record.

Benefits of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can lead to a well-rounded skill set and a viable career. While apprentices are paid less money per hour than journey-level workers, apprentices who complete their training programs and master their craft move up on the pay scale much faster. Below are the primary benefits of apprenticeship programs.

  1. Earn while you learn.

    Unlike college where students pay for instruction, apprentices are paid to learn. Many industries give apprentices a slight bump in pay for each class they complete during their apprenticeship.

  2. Receive an industry-recognized credential upon successful completion.

    Apprentices who complete formal training programs receive a certificate that’s transferable anywhere in the U.S. They can apply at union and non-union employers across the country and ask for journey-level wages since they have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully perform work.

  3. Advance in your career and industry.

    Apprentices often climb the company ranks much faster than their peers who don’t complete the additional technical training that accompanies apprenticeship programs because they have a more well-rounded skill set and deeper understand of the technical aspects of their industry. Additionally, apprentices who demonstrate strong initiative and competence are often given increased jobsite responsibilities that can lead to supervisory positions and greater pay upon completion of the program.

  4. Get into an in-demand industry.

    The nationwide labor shortage in skilled trades is an ongoing issue. According to the Associated General Contractors, 80 percent construction firms surveyed in August of 2018 say they’ll have trouble finding enough skilled trades workers. These firms, and other companies in a wide range of industries, seek apprentices to fill key positions once apprentices complete their formal training programs.

  5. Make valuable connections in your industry.

    Apprentices can craft a strong reputation through their hard work and dedication that can help them earn the respect of longtime journey-level workers. These experienced craftspeople often help apprentices gain additional workplace knowledge by taking them under their wing and helping them advance their careers[RS30] .

Becoming an Apprentice

Apprentices come from diverse backgrounds, and there are no set qualities that aspiring apprentices should have to be successful. However, employers typically seek apprentices who show initiative, strong work ethic and ambition, and responsibility. Following the steps below can help secure an apprenticeship regardless of the trade.

  • Complete a high school diploma or general education diploma.

    For most skilled trades, this is the minimum required educational attainment.

  • Research potential careers.

    A great place to start is the U.S. Department of Labor’s apprenticeship homepage. Here potential apprentices can research top trades for apprentices, and find many additional resources to tap into on their way to becoming journey-level craftspeople.

  • Craft a resume.

    Apprentices may need to submit a resume to potential employers. Pertinent data to incorporate includes education and work history and a comprehensive summary of relevant skills. Local agencies and even community colleges offer workshops and help with crafting resumes, and online help is also available.

  • Enroll in a formal apprenticeship program.

    Employers typically have a dedicated staffer that will help apprentices enroll into a registered apprentice program. Search out local apprenticeship organizations in your area, like this one from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, which offers enrollment help.

From the Expert

Mark Wertz has been a union boilermaker for 17 years. Prior to becoming coordinator for the Boilermakers National Apprenticeship Program, he served as business agent and apprenticeship coordinator for his home Local 169 in Detroit.

Q: How long do apprenticeship programs run?

A: The boilermakers apprenticeship program is a four-year program. Our apprentices, and most trades like this, mostly learn on the job. Apprentices are not paid to go to school, but they do have mandatory classes to complete. However, they get a slight pay raise for every class they pass.

Q: What are the main benefits of apprenticeships

A: Apprentices can take skills learned in class and contribute more on the job and get more work done. When an apprentice learns his or her craft and wants to improve, it creates a reputation with their work crews and with people who have been in the trades for some time. The workers in field usually take them under their wing and show them more about their trade. It shows solidarity and makes people want to stay longer and contribute more.

Q: What are the main goals of apprenticeship programs?

A: The goal of any apprenticeship is to train a well-rounded craftsman. For the boilermakers, of course there is a lot of welding and a lot of rigging, but we cover all the skills we an individual needs to be a competent journeyman. We usually start out with an assessment of what they’ll need to know on Day 1. For us, that’s use of basic tools, measuring, and other things they will need to know. From there we introduce more technical aspects of our trade.

Q: What potential impact can apprentice training have on career development, especially for people seeking career education and training outside of college?

A: Apprenticeships provide mentoring, they teach responsibility, and they instill solid work habits, such as being on time and learning something new every day. They also can bring wages to journey-level status much more quickly for adept students. Apprenticeship also can foster newfound love of work and hunger for learning. But you have got to be committed.

Q: Any additional expert insight about expectations and learning potential gained through apprenticeships?

A: When you start an apprenticeship you get a clean slate, and you get out of it what you put into it. This country needs people who don’t boast or brag and just get the job done – that’s what we do.

Additional Resources

Here are 10 additional resources for apprentices: