Take the Apprenticeship Route

If you want to earn while you learn, check out the opportunities provided by apprenticeships. An apprentice is a paid employee who trains on the job for a skilled career. There is some classroom learning involved as well, but most of the training is hands-on. Apprentices train under a skilled worker in the trade they have chosen.

After four or five years, their training is complete, and the apprentice can write an exam to become a journeyperson. Journeyperson is the level between apprentice and master.

Apprentices must be full-time employees who are paid at least minimum wage. In addition to the 40-hour workweek, apprentices attend classes two evenings a week. Tuition is paid by the sponsor company or, in some cases, a union.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) registers apprenticeship programs and apprentices in 23 states. The other 27 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, have chosen to set up state apprenticeship councils. They perform the same function as the BAT and receive the BAT's help and supervision.

You might be surprised to learn the range of careers that fall into the apprenticeship category. We're not just talking about mechanics and pipefitters. Hairdressers and cooks also learn their skills this way. Apprenticeships can also lead to careers in the information technology, hospitality and aerospace industries.

Brent Frazier works for a building contracting company and is actively involved in recruiting apprentices. He says his recruits must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or equivalency, and be able to perform the hard physical labor required to be an electrician.

"This is a job that sometimes involves long hours or odd hours if a power outage or electrical problem arises. The weather can be a problem if it's cold or rainy. And it's physically demanding -- crawling, lifting, climbing," he says.

"A person out of high school can get paid for learning a trade. And in our company, the person can move up to management by starting as an apprentice."

Some apprenticeships are available for students who are still in high school. The Department of Defense offers summer apprenticeships for high school students to encourage interest in science and engineering. About 600 students are selected each summer to work for a modest stipend in 24 army and navy laboratories doing hands-on tasks with scientists and engineers.

Competition for these apprenticeships is fierce because students actually perform research, analyze data and make both oral and written presentations of their findings -- an impressive credential on any resume or college application.

There are plenty of good reasons to consider an apprenticeship. Benefits packages for tradespeople are usually excellent, you get lots of opportunities to work outdoors or with your hands and you'll make a good salary.


Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services
Information from the U.S .Department of Labor

Youth Apprenticeship
Apprenticeship program for high school juniors and seniors in Wisconsin

Talking to Students

What to Expect

No two days are alike in an apprenticeship program.

For apprentice electrician Michele Riggs, one of the best parts of the program is the variety. "I get to go to different places all the time, do different things and meet so many different people," she says.

"If I am on a job that I don't really like, I just have to keep working for 20 minutes, or two hours or two days, and I will get to do something else someplace different."

Riggs took a few years to make her career choice. A job as an electrical distributor in a warehouse piqued her interest in the trades and motivated her to apply for an electrician's course at a local community college.

She graduated at the top of her class and started her apprenticeship right away. "I think apprenticeship is an excellent opportunity for an individual to learn a trade," Riggs says. "It couples schooling with hands-on experience. To be a good tradesperson, you have to be able to do the work and understand how and why it works."

Jeff Martin took a four-year heating and air conditioning apprenticeship in Reston, Virginia. Before that, he had worked in the construction business for several years.

In addition to working 40 hours per week in a condominium complex under the supervision of the heat plant manager, Martin attended a three-hour class two evenings a week.

Martin says that although he enjoyed his apprenticeship, he has one regret -- that he didn't study harder in high school. "Life is just easier when you study," he says.

How to Prepare

Riggs recommends that high school students take as many math courses as they can. "Every time I add fractions at work, I think of my math teachers and say 'thank you,'" she says.

Many community colleges and trades schools offer apprenticeship programs. Choose a school which best suits your chosen field of study.