Apprenticeships are gaining popularity again. If earlier they were associated primarily with working professions, such as baker, builder, or electrician, now more and more tech occupations turn to apprenticeships as a way of growing qualified specialists within the company. For example, Google is looking for IT, data analytics, and software engineering apprentices willing to start learning and earning this September. The kicker? All you need is a high school degree. They specifically ask that their candidates MUST NOT have a completed Bachelor's, Master's, or PhD degree in a related tech field. This sounds tempting if you are a broke Art Major reconsidering your life choices and looking wistfully at lucrative software development job openings.
However, suppose you are still a college hopeful. In that case, you might think, "So, should I write my essay for college admission or craft a CV to apply for this awesome apprenticeship opportunity?" Start by reading this blog. Learn more about what apprenticeship is and all about the pros and cons of it as a career and educational option.
What is an apprenticeship?
Apprenticeship is a learn-by-doing educational program that combines practical hands-on training with theoretical instruction aligned with official curricula that allow you to earn academic credits. Apprenticeship is often confused (or even used interchangeably) with internships and staff development programs. However, there are some significant differences:
- An apprenticeship is a form of employment – paid by definition and with wage progression. Internships, on the other hand, can be unpaid.
- Internships are short-term gigs, while apprenticeships usually take several years to complete. Most apprenticeships are between one and six years long, requiring an apprentice to complete a minimum of 2,000 work hours. Others may require 12,000 and upwards.
- Internships are usually uninstructed and do not specify the skills you will acquire. Whether interning in IT, marketing, or finances, you may end up doing miscellaneous office tasks like file organizing, answering the phone, or making tea. At the same time, an apprenticeship is an education program with a formal plan. You learn the trade and acquire job-specific skills and competencies.
Why consider an apprenticeship?
In the US, internships are prevalent, which unfortunately cannot be said about apprenticeship programs. According to FY 2020 Data and Statistics from the US Department of Labor, there were 636,000 apprentices nationwide, just over 3% of the 19.7 million students enrolled at US postsecondary institutions that same year. Too bad! The apprenticeship allows you to combine the best of both worlds. You get an education (transferable college credits and industry-recognized credentials), relevant work experience, and a paycheck instead of student debt!
Unlike their US counterparts, European students know which side their bread is buttered. According to Andrea Messing-Mathie, a director at Jobs for the Future Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, more than half of students in Europe participate in some apprenticeship program. "It's just standard," says she, "because the theory is that you learn better by doing, and studying, and not just by studying, and then working."
Apprenticeship is a very flexible option. You can combine it as part-time work with your studies at the university or take it on as a full-time paying job after or instead of college. Basically, it is suitable for anyone who wants to learn a skill in a particular industry. Here are the undeniable boons of the apprenticeship:
- Earning living wage
- Saving on tuition fees
- Exploring your options without committing
- Learning relevant skills and working experience at the same time
- Accessing benefits
- Getting certified
The exact sum depends on the industry, of course. Still, most apprentices get an entry-level position salary from the get-go. Plus, their earnings grow as they progress and reach an average of $72,000 annually after the program completion, according to Apprenticeship.gov.
Depending on the program, your employer might partially or fully cover your tuition. However, even if the program's conditions do not require you to formally enroll in a class, an apprenticeship often awards you transferable college credits. That will allow you to reduce the number of courses you will have to take later if you decide to pursue a degree after you've completed your internship program.
When we go to college, we are often torn between two or more equally appealing career paths. We can change our major as we go, of course. Or get another degree after we find that the first option wasn't all it promised to be. However, it's darn expensive. Even if you switch majors during your sophomore year, you will have to take gazillion additional classes and lose some of your previous credits. At the same time, an apprenticeship allows you to get the taste of the career while getting paid – AND without a four-year commitment!
Matt Devereaux, apprenticeship success coordinator at West Michigan Works!, highlights that most students have to work in odd jobs to fund their studies. However, this doesn't give them any career-relevant skills – only a handful of cash. While with an apprenticeship, "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."
Depending on the employer and the particular program, your apprenticeship contract might include health insurance, paid time off, a retirement plan, discounts, and other benefits that regular employees get.
That applies only to registered apprenticeships approved by the US Department of Labor, but it's worth mentioning. After completing your apprenticeship program, you will get a nationally-recognized certificate that will be a sweet addition to your resume and increase your chances in the industry.
What are the drawbacks?
"Sign me up! I'm in!" I can hear you eagerly cry. Hold your horses, buddy. I promised to tell you everything: good and bad. Before you decide, learn about some of the challenges that go along with the apprenticeship.
- Having a lot to balance
- Finding a suitable apprenticeship in the first place
- Choosing from a limited pool of industries
Starting a career and learning as an apprentice along the way is no easier than going to college and hustling to get by. You must juggle your responsibilities and master time management to stay on top of everything.
That one is a real doozy. The percentage of apprentices in the US is so tiny not because willing students are lacking. Rather, it's due to the lack of opportunity. Sought-after apprenticeships in health care and tech are hard to come by – and even harder to land, so competition is savage.
Apprenticeship is a very flexible format that suits many fields. Unfortunately, however, not all industries have embraced it yet. So far, the list is limited to IT, cybersecurity, finances, healthcare, hospitality, construction, energy, engineering, transportation, and advanced manufacturing.
Still, the future looks bright for apprenticeships. According to the US Department of Labor, the number of apprentices has been steadily growing since 2011 and showed a 70% increase in 2019. It dipped a bit during the pandemic but has fully recovered since.
More and more businesses in the IT sector see the apprenticeship system as a way to optimize their hiring costs, grow loyal, skilled middle-level specialists within the company, and meet their diversity goals. The apprenticeship allows ending occupational segregation by pulling from untapped talent. It benefits women, people of color, returning citizens, veterans, people with family obligations, disabilities, and other vulnerable categories that cannot afford to give up working to go to college.
All this makes apprenticeship an attractive option to consider – whether right after high school, during a college program, or while switching careers after already obtaining your first degree. Instead of pausing your career, you can advance it. Instead of spending money on your education – earn both salary and knowledge. Instead of doing off jobs – getting industry-relevant experience while enjoying all the benefits of a regular employee.