Trade Apprenticeships
Trade Apprenticeships
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The word “apprentice” may elicit images of Orlando Bloom as a swashbuckling blacksmith’s apprentice in Pirates of the Caribbean or of Mickey Mouse wearing a wizard’s hat and directing magical broomsticks as the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, but apprenticeships are alive and well outside of Hollywood. In fact, over 530,000 people were completing apprenticeships throughout the United States in 2017. The occupations with the highest number of apprentices that year were electricians, carpenters, construction laborers, and truck drivers, though apprenticeships are available in fields ranging from health care to green energy.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a program that provides both paid on-the-job training and supplemental classroom training related to a certain trade. Apprentices earn money as they learn. Apprenticeships are somewhat like vocational programs, and apprentices may even take classes at vocational or trade schools, but they do not have to take a long period of time off from work to complete their education. In an apprenticeship, work is education, with supplemental classes thrown in here and there. Apprenticeships are available to prospective professionals in any number of occupations, from animal trainers and certified nursing assistants to electricians and cooks. Programs can be either registered, meaning that they receive federal and/or state oversight, or unregistered, meaning that they are maintained by a business.

What is a registered apprenticeship?

Registered apprenticeships have been under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Labor since 1937 when Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Act. From 1911 until 1937, registered apprenticeship programs were managed by individual states, and before that, they didn’t exist at all. The National Apprenticeship Act ensures the safety and well-being of apprentices, creates contracts between apprentices and their companies, opens more apprenticeship programs, and establishes labor standards. Now, registered apprenticeships meet both national and state standards for education and safety and result in an industry-issued certificate that is recognized nationwide. The U.S. Department of Labor ensures that all registered apprenticeship programs provide high-quality training and that apprentices finish with the skills that are necessary for their professions.

In a registered apprenticeship, an apprentice works for an individual business or an employers’ association (an organization that provides training and human resources services to multiple businesses within the same industry that are members of the employers’ association). They receive both on-the-job training and supplementary classroom training. Though apprenticeships can range in length, most often they last four years, during which the apprentice must attain competency in his or her trade. This may be accomplished through 2,000 hours of on-the job training annually, being declared competent by a supervisor, or a combination of required hours and skills demonstrations. Apprentices must also complete at least 144 hours of supplemental instruction each year.

When apprentices begin their programs, they will receive at least federal minimum wage. Their hourly pay or salary will increase as they become more competent at their trades and complete more training.

What is an unregistered apprenticeship?

An unregistered apprenticeship is one that is not registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. It is instead maintained by a business or company and is tailored to meet its specific needs. These programs are not regulated by a state or federal agency, either because the program does not meet the requirements of a registered apprenticeship or because the company has not completed registration with the government. Many unregistered apprenticeships are fine, but companies may be less likely to hire individuals who have completed unregistered apprenticeships than those who completed registered apprenticeships. Since unregistered apprenticeships are not monitored, outside companies cannot verify the legitimacy or quality of the apprenticeship. Individuals who complete an unregistered apprenticeship do not earn a certificate from the Department of Labor.

Before considering an unregistered apprenticeship, make sure that you have already explored all of your options for a registered one. If you do not meet the eligibility requirements for a registered apprenticeship, consider a pre-apprenticeship program before turning to an unregistered apprenticeship.

What types of jobs offer apprenticeships?

The possibilities are nearly endless. Job titles can be as specific as automobile air conditioning mechanic, accordion maker, or airplane coverer, but they also include more everyday occupations, like hair stylists, nursing assistants, and plumbers. Many jobs that offer apprenticeships are in the field of construction (including plumbing, carpentry, metalworking, and stonemasonry). This list, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, details over 1,300 possible occupations for apprentices.

What are the benefits of completing an apprenticeship?

  • You’ll receive immediate career training. When you start an apprenticeship program, you will immediately begin hands-on training in your field. Your mentor will guide you through learning all of the skills necessary to become proficient in your chosen trade. At the end of your apprenticeship (if it is a registered apprenticeship), you will receive an industry certificate stating that you are competent in your trade.
  • You’ll receive hands-on training. If you are one of the many people who wouldn’t enjoy a traditional college environment but still want to receive training and education beyond high school, consider an apprenticeship. During an apprenticeship, the majority of your time will be spent learning while on the job. For the most part, you won’t be sitting in a classroom, staring at a screen, or listening to lectures. While you will have to sit through some supplementary coursework, it won’t be nearly as much as a traditional college student does, so you’ll have more time to learn by doing instead of by reading.
  • You’ll get paid. As soon as you start your apprenticeship, you will be earning money. Granted, at the beginning of the program, you may be making no more than federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour. As you progress through the program and learn more of the skills necessary to become proficient in your trade, you will earn a progressively higher paycheck. Apprentices earn $15.00 hourly on average.
  • You’ll receive an industry certificate. If you are in a registered apprenticeship, you will receive an industry certificate upon completion of the program. This certificate is good throughout the United States and will show potential employers that you have completed all necessary training for your career.

What are the drawbacks of completing an apprenticeship?

  • You are stuck with your chosen trade. Apprenticeship programs last from one to six years (four years on average). Many apprentices are asked to sign a training contract with the business providing their apprenticeship before starting, offering work in return for training. If you change your mind midway through an apprenticeship, you may have trouble leaving the program and could face legal and monetary repercussions if you do. Apprenticeships are best for people who know exactly what they want to do and can see themselves doing it for many years to come. Before signing a contract, be sure you know what you are getting into.
  • You may have to pay. You may have to pay for the classroom part of your apprenticeship, but you may also be eligible for federal financial aid. If your apprenticeship is tied to a vocational or technical program at a local institution, you may be considered a certificate-seeking student, meaning that you could qualify for Pell Grants, federal work-study, or low-interest loans. The employer sponsoring your apprenticeship may also qualify for government aid through workforce development funds that could offset your tuition and other education-related costs. Talk to your potential employer about what you may be liable for before signing a contract.
  • You may be limited on what you’re allowed to do. Some professions may limit the types of activities that apprentices can do until they’ve received a certain amount of training or completed a certification. This may be worse in the beginning of an apprenticeship program, as you are just starting to learn the trade. As time goes on, you will receive more hours of hands-on and classroom training and will be allowed to do more things. If you need to have a certificate to be able to work, this will be made clear to you when you are considering applying to a program.

How do I know if an apprenticeship is right for me?

First, are you willing to spend one to six years completely immersed in a single trade, or would you rather get a traditional college education and have the option to take courses outside of your field of study? There are benefits and drawbacks to each choice (namely, job outlook and cost), but this is a decision that you must make on your own. If you love cooking and can imagine nothing better than being a chef, an apprenticeship may be a good choice for you. If you love electrical engineering but also want to explore your options in literature and studio art, you may want to consider exploring a more traditional educational pathway.

Once you’ve decided that you do want to pursue a trade, you need to consider if an apprenticeship or a vocational school is the better option. Vocational schools may cost more, but the program could be shorter and lead to a similar certificate. However, the apprenticeship guarantees a combination of on-the-job and classroom training, plus you’ll get paid to do it. Explore some vocational programs related to your profession before settling on either option. Knowing what choices you have will lead to an informed decision that will best match your preferences.

Also, try talking to students at a vocational school and current apprentices in your chosen field to learn both sides of the story. Does one resonate more with you than the other? Could you shadow an apprentice for a day and a vocational student for a day to get an idea of their lives? Do the students themselves have any advice or thoughts about their chosen programs? If you choose trade school, you can learn more about deciding on a vocational program here. Otherwise, an apprenticeship might be the right choice.

What are the eligibility requirements for an apprenticeship?

Different apprenticeships have different requirements. Typically, to begin a registered apprenticeship, you must be at least 16 years old, but you may have to be at least 18 years old if the job is hazardous. Many apprenticeships require participants to have a high school diploma before they begin and may have other requirements as well, such as passing grades in certain classes or being able to pass an aptitude test. For jobs that require individuals to be up and moving throughout the day, employers may also ask that applicants be in good physical condition and able to meet the demands of the job. More information on eligibility is often available in job postings, or you can contact a company directly.

What if I do not want to commit right away?

Individuals who are unsure if they want to enter into a full apprenticeship may choose to take part in a pre-apprenticeship program. These programs are shorter and intended to prepare the individual for entering into a full apprenticeship if they choose. Depending on the company, pre-apprenticeships may be available to individuals who are younger than the required age for a full apprenticeship, and the pre-apprenticeship could be completed while the student is still in school.

Like an apprenticeship, a pre-apprenticeship is composed of both job-based training and classroom instruction, though the training that a participant receives at a company is less intensive and less skilled than in a full apprenticeship. (Following labor laws and maintaining safety are the main concerns.) If students feel sure that they will want to complete an apprenticeship in a certain trade, completing a pre-apprenticeship program is an ideal way for them to confirm their career choices, begin learning skills necessary for the job, and meet the minimum qualifications for the apprenticeship. Completing a pre-apprenticeship may also result in higher starting wages and less required training during the full apprenticeship.

For more information about pre-apprenticeships, contact the companies for which you hope to work and read up on the U.S.Department of Labor’s website.

How do I find an apprenticeship?

Finding an apprenticeship isn’t too hard, actually. With over 22,000 registered apprenticeship programs in the United States, there’s bound to be an occupation that interests you. Unlike unregistered apprenticeships, there are several ways to search for registered apprenticeship programs. This is because the Department of Labor can keep track of all the registered programs in the country since the businesses are in contact with the government to maintain their registration. If you are more interested in unregistered apprenticeships or don’t want to limit yourself to only registered apprenticeships, talk to companies for which you want to work to see if they can offer you an apprentice position before taking to Google and doing a general web search.

The following materials will help you search for registered apprenticeships:

  • Search the Apprenticeship Finder at Career One Stop.
  • Click on your state in the map below to be directed to a website with information on apprenticeships in your location. Typically, you will be directed either to the state’s Department of Labor or the state’s Department of Education, though some states have more developed materials on a separate site. Unfortunately, there are several states that do not have websites dedicated to apprenticeships. If you live in one of the states with no information, you will be best off using the resources listed above.
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Apprenticeship Map
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Are there specific apprenticeship opportunities for veterans?

The United Services Military Apprenticeship Program (USMAP) allows members of the Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines to complete nonmilitary apprenticeships while they are serving on active duty. As of 2017, there were over 89,000 members of the military completing apprenticeships through USMAP. The military works with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide industry certificates after the completion of the apprenticeship program. Service members can complete apprenticeships in their fields, so they are not required to work extra hours beyond what is already required of them through their positions in the military. There are 123 available trades for service members; these options cover 85% of Coast Guard specialties, 96% of Navy specialties, and over 230 Marine Corps positions. Having a certificate of completion not only opens up opportunities to service members when they leave the military, but it also may enhance their chances of being promoted within the military when the time comes.

What questions should I ask before I decide on an apprenticeship?

  • What is the company’s reputation in the industry?
  • Are the company’s facilities up-to-date and using the newest industry technology?
  • What will your yearly salary be as an apprentice, and how much will you have to pay to complete your classroom training? Are there options for scholarships or financial aid through the company? Can you apply for federal financial aid?
  • What are your job prospects after your complete your apprenticeship? Will you continue to work for the same company or have to find a job somewhere else?
  • Should you look for a union or nonunion apprenticeship or job?

How do unions work?

A union protects the interests of employees and apprentices at participating companies. Members of a union typically enjoy higher pay and a better benefits package than nonunion members.

  • Benefits of unions:
    • Being a member of a union protects your job, making it difficult to get fired. Workers can only be fired for “just cause,” meaning there must be a reason behind their removal. Workers can appeal being fired and the strength of the union will typically back them up.
    • Individuals who have been members of a union for a long time receive seniority, meaning that they may get promotions and better jobs before younger members. They are also more protected from layoffs. This is to reduce favoritism.
  • Drawbacks of unions:
    • Unions are only offered certain jobs, and if there are no jobs, then there is no work for the members of the union. Working as an at-will employee gives individuals the freedom to work wherever there are jobs, though they are also subject to termination without an explanation.
    • Union members are subject to monthly or annual dues and may have to pay an initiation fee. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example, requires their members to pay approximately two-and-a-half times their hourly wage in dues each month.
    • Seniority can work against younger members of unions, even if they are skilled at their jobs. They may not receive promotions or “good” jobs because they are young and less experienced. Younger members of a union are also more likely to be laid off if the situation arises, regardless of their skill level, since older members have established their seniority.

Page last updated: 07/2018