Looking for a Low- to No-Debt Career Path? Try an Apprenticeship.
Gain a set of marketable skills and a better opportunity for a well-paying career—without the high-cost college tuition tab.
After graduating from high school in Morgantown, West Virginia, Taylor Henderson spent several years in low-paying jobs. He had considered college, but worried that the bills would be too steep. Plus, he enjoyed working with his hands. But he soon discovered that as an unskilled sheet metal worker, his earnings were barely enough to make ends meet, let alone save for the future†,
On construction sites, he found himself envying the more experienced workers. “Welding had always fascinated me,” he recalls. But well-paying jobs like that went to people with formal training. Then one day a friend’s father, a welder working on the same job as Henderson, suggested that he apply for an apprenticeship at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 152. He jumped at the opportunity.
Training would take years of dedication, Henderson learned. But in addition to classroom and on-the-job training, he’d get paid for working and emerge with a better chance for a skilled, well-paying career.
Now in the third year of a five-year apprenticeship, Henderson, 29, has never looked back. “I'm getting married this summer, and I have a little boy who is seven months old,” he says. “I just bought a house. I never could've done that before joining the Pipefitters.”
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Good Pay, Wide-Ranging Choices
About 499,000 new apprentices have taken advantage of similar opportunities nationwide since early 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More than 94% of those who complete an apprenticeship get jobs in related fields‡.
Starting salaries average more than $60,000 a year, and workers who complete apprenticeships earn an average of $300,000 more over their careers compared to peers who don’t§.
Apprentice programs give you a set of skills “that are portable,” says Samuel White, Ph.D., Professor at West Virginia University’s Institute for Labor Studies and Research¶. “You can go just about anywhere in the United States and work.”
Historically, most programs were in construction trades, but apprenticeships cover many occupational categories, including manufacturing, health care, hospitality, transportation, and information technology#. A full list from the Department of Labor encompasses hundreds of occupations.
In addition to hands-on training, apprenticeships require classroom instruction at a community college or technical school. “Those hours can be put towards an associate degree,” says Kristie Kabacinski, apprenticeship success coordinator for the Macomb/St. Clair Workforce Development Board outside of Detroit, Michigan††.
Once you have an idea of the field or fields that are of interest to you, use the apprenticeship finder tool at Apprenticeship.gov. Enter an occupation such as “electrician” or “automotive technician” along with your area and find out what positions may be available.
Tough but Rewarding
Admission to an apprenticeship program is not guaranteed. Henderson recalls a rigorous standardized exam followed by an interview with several professionals from Pipefitters Local 152. And, some specialties may require relocation. “You might need to travel to another community to get the education,” Kabacinski advises. “Luckily, with the apprenticeship you're getting paid while going to school.”
Apprenticeship is a start, not the end goal. Henderson is now training as an HVAC specialist, keeping his options open by pursuing an associate degree and sharpening his skills as a welder. “I’m learning something different every day,” he says. “It's always something new.” One day recently he found himself in Pittsburgh, working on an HVAC unit situated at the top of one of the city’s tallest buildings. “It was pretty cool,” he says.
For Henderson, the experience seemed to represent how far he’d come, and how wide open the future now seems. Once you start down the apprenticeship path, he says, “you can better yourself as much as you want to.”
†Interview with Taylor Henderson.
‡U.S. Department of Labor, “Apprenticeship by the Numbers.”
§U.S. Department of Labor, “Apprenticeships combine a full-time job with training—and prepare workers to enter in-demand careers.”
¶Interview with Sam White.
# U.S. Department of Labor “Apprenticeship Industries.”
††Interview with Kristie Kabacinski, Macomb/St. Clair Workforce Development Board.
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