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Don’t Forget About Apprenticeships: Learn While You Earn


While not everyone wants to work, because most people have to, it logically follows that most of us want a job. The real question is, what’s the best way to get one? If you can’t afford four years of college, but want a skilled job that pays more than minimum wage, an apprenticeship might be for you.

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In a country where college tuition rates are off the charts, and the number of unpaid interns who can afford to click-clack their stilettos around Conde Nast simply for the privilege of adding “editorial intern” to their resumes is limited to a rare breed of post-baccalaureate Sarah Lawrence trustafarians, an apprenticeship can serve as an effective and profitable career path. This is especially compared to more costly options, such as higher education degrees that can lead to years of student debt, or paid or unpaid internships that may or may not lead to a full-time job. (In regard to the latter, who wants to work for free?)

While for many the word “apprentice” conjures up alternating images of Donald Trump bellowing across a boardroom or a Longfellow-esque charcoal etching of a young blacksmith-in-training hammering hot metals on an anvil under the watchful eye of a British Journeyman, the US’s 75-year-old Registered Apprenticeship program includes a surprisingly dynamic list of pursuable occupations, many of which offer equally surprisingly profitable career potential.

While historical incarnations of apprenticeships lasted around seven years and often entailed low or no wages (some even dictated that the apprentice pay a Master or Journeyman in exchange for tutelage), modern-day apprentices usually work for four years and are compensated from day one.

According to the Department of Labor, the current average starting rate for an apprentice is $15 an hour (double the federal minimum wage), and wages increase incrementally over time in accordance to skill level. Certified apprentices can earn an average salary of $50,000 a year, and can earn roughly $300,000 more over the course of their careers than individuals with only a high school diploma.

In the United States, there are currently more than 410,000 apprentices representing a whopping 1,164 occupations, and more than 170,500 people became apprenticeships in the 2014 Fiscal Year. Program availability, qualifications, and completion requirements vary dramatically according to state, occupation and sponsor/employer, but the basic terms are as follows:

  • Minimum starting age requirement: 16 years old (18 for “hazardous” occupations).
  • Average duration: Four years, though they can technically range between one and six years, depending on the occupation and employer
  • A typical apprenticeship includes 2,000 hours of onsite job training from an assigned mentor per year, and a minimum of 144 hours of “related classroom instruction” (via apprenticeship training centers, technically schools, community colleges, etc.), per year.
  • The takeaway? Ideally a full-time job, but at the very least, a “Completion of Registered Apprenticeship” certificate, which is “an industry issued, nationally recognized credential that validates proficiency in an apprentice-able occupation,” according to the Department of Labor.

According to federal data, the list of the top 25 apprentice occupations for the 2014 Fiscal Year include:

The complete list of possibilities includes:

The three states with the highest number of apprentices in 2014 were California (34,901), New York (16,238), and Virginia (15,649). The three least active apprentice states were Wyoming (384), South Dakota (637), and Idaho (748).

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