As a Millennial growing up in a Latino household, it was practically ingrained in my brain as a child that going to college after high school was the only option to get ahead in life. Everything else was frowned upon.
Well, guess what?
Turns out my parents were wrong (sorry, mom!). College is not the only way forward. There are many ways to achieve post-secondary success, and apprenticeships are one of them.
Apprenticeships combine the best of both worlds: education + relevant work experience, and a nice paycheck at the end of the day.
In this article, I’ll go over everything you need to know about this alternative post-secondary path. This includes all the pros, cons, and answers the great debate on whether you should go to college or stick to applying for an apprenticeship instead.
What is an apprenticeship?
Apprenticeships are the long-lost cousin of co-ops, work-study programs, and internships that rarely get talked about in the U.S., but they’re actually pretty popular around the world.
In fact, Andrea Messing-Mathie, director at Jobs for the Future’s Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning, says that over 50% of students in Europe are enrolled in some apprenticeship program.
“It’s just standard. It’s a very normal way of doing it because the theory is that you learn better by doing, and studying, and not just by studying, and then working.”
As an apprentice, you’ll get an employment contract, just like you would with any other job.
The difference, however, is that you’re not considered at total occupational capacity, as you’re getting paid to learn on the job.
Who are they suitable for?
Apprenticeships are basically for anyone looking to learn a trade or skill in a particular industry.
In terms of what is required for you to apply, it varies significantly from one program to the next, although most of them require you to be at least 16 years old, and have a high school diploma or GED.
For example, this entry-level software developer apprenticeship position at HCL Technologies in North Carolina doesn’t require you to have any previous experience at all, working in tech or a related field. You just need to meet the criteria listed below:
While this automotive technician apprenticeship at Caliber Collision in North Carolina, has a completely different set of requirements to apply, as you can see below:
7 reasons to become an apprentice
Doing an apprenticeship comes with some serious benefits that will make the experience 100% worth it. Here are some of them.
You’ll gain career-propelling skills, and will have a leg up over recent college grads
Matt Devereaux, apprenticeship success coordinator at West Michigan Works!, says that most college students work in odd jobs that rarely allow them to gain any career-relevant skills while in school.
“An apprenticeship starts with a living wage. You are an employee, and you are learning on the job while you are learning in the classroom as well. So, not only are you making enough money to get by, but you’re also getting that experience that most people have to wait for until they graduate with their degree to obtain.”
In other words, you’ll have something nice to put on your resume that can increase your chances of getting a better job than someone who’s fresh out of college, and has no relevant work experience.
You’ll earn a living wage
Although Devereaux mentions that apprenticeships start with a “living wage,” the reality is that many of them pay higher-than-average salaries.
According to Apprenticeship.gov, 92% of apprentices who finish their program not only retain their jobs but also earn an average annual salary of $72,000, which is pretty damn good.
To give you some context, the average person with a high school diploma only makes about $40,612 a year, as per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data — that’s almost a 56% difference (in case you were wondering).
You’ll save money on tuition fees
Messing-Mathie, from Jobs for the Future, says:
“The average cost of attendance for a student living on campus at a public four-year institution is approximately $25,000 a year, or over $100,000 over four years.”
Although some apprenticeships do require you to enroll in a class to apply, the cost is usually minimal compared to pursuing a full-on college degree.
“In some cases, employers do pay for your tuition,” Messing-Mathie says. “But regardless of anything, they always have to pay the wage of the employee,” she adds.
So, even if you do have to pay for a class or two out of pocket, you can recoup some of that money when you get your paycheck.
Read more: Is Your Student Loan Debt ‘Worth It’?
You get to “try before you buy”
I’ve mentioned this before in other pieces, but when I was applying for college, I was torn between being a biology and a chemistry major.
I ended up choosing chemistry because I thought there was a higher earning potential there, but then, I switched up again during sophomore year and got an English degree instead.
This, my friends, cost me a lot of time, and money. I had to take additional classes, and lost some of my previous credits, just because I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do.
Apprenticeships, however, allow you to explore different career options before you commit to a four-year program.
Access to benefits
As if getting a nice paycheck to learn and gain work experience wasn’t enough, most employers also throw in a benefits package as part of their apprenticeship contract.
If you do a quick search on Apprenticeship.gov, you’ll see that many companies offer apprentices the following:
- Health insurance.
- Access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plans.
- Paid time off.
Some companies also offer their apprentices free work gear and materials, plus discounts at amusement parks, and other places.
You’ll get a nationally-recognized certification
Apprenticeships last anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the program.
However, if you’re enrolled in a registered apprenticeship (aka one that’s approved by the U.S. Department of Labor), you’ll get a certificate if you pass the program with flying colors.
You can list that certificate as part of your resume, which, in turn, will increase your career mobility within the industry you “majored” in.
Because it serves as proof that you possess the skills needed to successfully perform a job in that particular field.
You could earn college credit
Along with a nationally-recognized certificate, you can also receive college credit upon completing your apprenticeship program successfully.
For example, Walgreens currently offers a pharmacy technician apprenticeship that can give you eight college credits upon completion. The credits offered are recognized by the American Council on Education (ACE), which means they’re easily transferable to most technical colleges and universities across the country.
So, if you’re interested in pursuing a two or a four-year degree, getting an apprenticeship can also reduce the number of classes you’ll need to take, and allow you to get your degree faster.
Should you go to college or do an apprenticeship?
Messing-Mathie, from Jobs for the Future, says that this mentality that college is the only path for post-secondary success is nothing but a myth. She says:
“College is an extremely expensive career exploration activity, both emotionally and financially. Giving young people the opportunity to try, explore, and prepare for occupations through apprenticeships, opens their horizons, it does not tighten them.”
Still, Messing-Mathie says that apprenticeships and college aren’t mutually exclusive, as there are plenty of apprentices who go on to finish their four-year degree, after completing the program. She says that some employers even encourage it by offering to pay for some — or all — of your education expenses.
In other words, you don’t have to choose between going to college or being an apprentice. You can actually do both — if you’re up for the challenge, of course.
Challenges to consider
You’ll have to do some juggling
“One of the most common challenges is that this is a lot to take on,” Devereaux, from West Michigan Works!, says.
“You are starting a career, and learning along the way. That’s a lot to balance, so time management is important and something that can be a challenge for some, but we do see a lot of people succeed.”
Apprenticeships can be hard to get
Another hurdle you’ll have to overcome is landing the apprenticeship itself.
Messing-Mathie, from Jobs for the Future, points out that apprenticeship programs, particularly in the health and tech industry are extremely hard to get.
The reason behind this is that there aren’t as many opportunities available as there is demand, so the competition can be steep.
If you want to make your application stand out, Messing-Mathie recommends taking high school courses or joining clubs that relate in some way to the apprenticeship you’re interested in, since that will give you more leverage.
They are limited to certain industries
According to data by Apprenticeship.gov, these are the main industries that currently offer apprenticeship programs in the country:
- Information technology.
- Advanced manufacturing.
- Financial Services.
So, if you’re interested in learning a trade or skill in an industry that isn’t listed above, you’ll probably have to look for other learning options.
Just because apprenticeships aren’t what most people do right after high school, that doesn’t mean they’re bad, or less than a college degree.
In fact, doing an apprenticeship could give you an advantage over your peers, as you’ll gain work experience, earn a decent salary, plus you could get your degree paid for by your employer, and graduate debt-free.
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