Apprenticeships: A Comprehensive Guide

apprentices sitting together


Taylor Tobin
Taylor Tobin1.84k

Job seekers fresh out of college and in the early stages of their careers frequently get their start in the professional world thanks to educational work experiences known as internships, arrangements intended to combine an educational experience for the applicant with on-the-job work experience. 

Slightly less ubiquitous — but still common in certain industries — are apprenticeships, a similar category of jobs intended to launch the careers of promising newcomers. While internships are all the rage in the United States, apprenticeships are rising in popularity, and these programs may actually offer participants more concrete benefits and a higher likelihood of eventual employment.

Here, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about apprenticeships: what they are, what distinguishes them from internships, how they operate, how they pay, which fields employ apprentices and the type of career advancement you can expect after an apprenticeship’s completion.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a paid job training period that allows an individual — the apprentice — to acquire a particular set of skills or become familiar at an art or trade. The real-world application of this concept involves a one-on-one mentorship (or, in some cases, a small group of apprentices learning from a veteran — or a contingent of veterans — of their field) focused on a particular skill. 

Apprenticeships vs. internships

While apprenticeships and internships seem very alike on the surface, these two training programs bear numerous differences. First of all, apprenticeships typically include more specific and career-focused training than internships; interns may be asked to perform various general office tasks that have little to do with their program of study or their career aspirations, while the work of apprentices is generally more particularly oriented toward the job that the apprentice ultimately hopes to gain for herself. 

Also, interns regularly work for college credit or — in some cases — experience without pay, whereas apprentices must receive monetary compensation for their work in addition to college credits (where relevant), according to the U.S. Department of Labor

Finally, apprenticeships often serve as direct pipelines to a permanent position. Interns, of course, do sometimes receive employment offers after their tenure, but these offers are a more implicit part of the apprentice experience. It’s not an absolute guarantee, of course, but because of the amount of time and resources spent on apprentices, companies offering apprenticeships have a vested interest in hiring these student workers at the end of their training period. 

How do apprenticeships work?

Apprentices, according to the DOL, work based on a “learn-as-you-earn” model. The position focuses on education, and apprentice mentors must prioritize the instruction of their trade to the apprentices working under them. However, apprentices are expected to perform real-life aspects of the job in question as they gain more knowledge of the role and its responsibilities. Because apprenticeships do pay a wage for work performed, they fit more comfortably into the “job” category than the more free-form and less practically-relevant internship. 

What’s the typical pay rate for apprentices?

The Department of Labor states that apprentices “start working when they enter an apprenticeship, with steady wage increases as they become more proficient.” Therefore, the lack of payment so frequently (and egregiously) present among internships that don’t offer college credit is explicitly prohibited for official apprenticeships certified by the DOL. The DOL goes on to say that apprentices in the United States can expect an average hourly wage of $15.

How long do apprenticeships typically last?

Internships lasting only a single semester or 3-month summer session occur on a regular basis, but because apprenticeships involve more in-depth training with a traditional end goal of job placement, apprentices are expected to make a more significant time investment in their service. The Department of Labor describes the time span of an apprenticeship as one to six years, with apprentices often combining on-the-job training with classroom studies. To further promote the educational aspect of the apprenticeship, many companies with these programs make direct arrangements with local community colleges to offer credit to participants not already enrolled in an undergraduate program. 

Which fields hire apprentices?

Apprentices aren’t as common in the United States as interns, but this training structure appears more frequently overseas. Even in the States, apprenticeships are a common element of certain career paths. A few examples of fields that regularly hire apprentices in the US:

  • Carpentry
  • Agriculture
  • Media and theater arts
  • Construction
  • Masonry
  • Plumbing
  • Culinary arts
  • Engineering
  • Information technology
  • Sales
  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Tourism and hospitality
  • Athletics

What are the key benefits of completing an apprenticeship?

In addition to a higher rate of pay and more specialized job training, apprenticeships come with a level of security that isn’t always present in the internship model. Perhaps most importantly, apprentices must shoulder a greater level of responsibility than the typical intern. Their assignments generally contribute directly to the work performed by actual professionals in the field, and they receive hands-on education in the hopes that they’ll emerge from the apprenticeships with the necessary skills to hold down a job with the company that originally brought them aboard (or, in certain cases, with a comparable company). 

Apprentices also have the benefit of a direct connection between their classroom lessons and the work they’re doing on job sites; by contrast, a marketing major may attain an internship in the marketing department of a major company, but she’s not likely to write any press releases or advertising drafts to be seen by clients, instead taking on tasks like running errands and providing minor support for junior employees.

If an individual completes an apprenticeship recognized by the Department of Labor, she’ll emerge with a national credential acknowledging her experience which, in some fields, makes for a valuable status indicator worthy of mention on a resume

Companies and organizations are encouraged to officially register their apprenticeship programs with the Department of Labor. If they elect to do so, they’ll benefit from technical support from the DOL’s Apprenticeship system, a federal certification approving the program’s quality standards, tax credits and other resources contingent on the apprenticeship’s particular industry.

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