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What Is an Apprenticeship? Complete Guide to Apprenticeships

By Josephine Nesbit · February 15, 2023 · 7 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is an Apprenticeship? Complete Guide to Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship program pairs paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction to produce skilled workers, who get a foot in the door of their preferred field without going to college for four or more years.

Nearly 600,000 apprentices were taking part in 27,300 registered apprenticeship programs in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship.

Here are details about finding an apprenticeship, how much you might earn, the commitment required, and more.

Apprenticeship 101

An apprenticeship is a way to acquire hands-on training, work experience, classroom instruction, and mentorship in a particular trade. Not only is an apprenticeship paid, but it’s also a doorway to a stable and in-demand job.

Most apprentices are promoted or receive a raise during their apprenticeship. The average salary is $77,000, the Department of Labor says.

Apprentices receive a nationally recognized credential in their industry upon completion of the program, and may even earn academic credit toward a college degree. Ninety-three percent who cross the finish line retain employment, according to the Labor Department.

There are several places to look for an apprenticeship. You can use the federal agency’s Apprenticeship
to search by keyword and location, contact your state’s apprenticeship agency, check out trade or labor unions in your area, or use traditional job search engines. If you need more guidance, find an American Job Center near you.

Recommended: Why College Isn’t for Everyone

How Does an Apprenticeship Work?

The majority of apprenticeships are registered either with the Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency. Upon entering a program, apprentices receive training under the guidance of an experienced mentor. Many are also required to take academic courses related to that career.

The eligible starting age is 16, but some occupations require apprentices to be at least 18. Some apprentices may also have the option to enter a pre-apprenticeship program, which aims to better prepare workers for the apprenticeship program.

Upon completion of the program, a nationally recognized credential, certificate, or degree is awarded.

How Long Does an Apprenticeship Last?

An apprenticeship program usually lasts four years. Some take as little as one year, and some, as many as six. Whatever the length, apprentices must complete at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job learning plus 144 hours of classroom work.

How Much Do Apprentices Make?

During training, apprentices earn about $17 to $21 per hour, but pay varies by location. Raises are given when new skills are learned.

Do You Have to Pay for an Apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship training is typically offered by the employer at no cost to the apprentice, but apprentices may need to cover certain expenses, such as tools or educational materials.

Employers may pay for the instruction but specify that if an apprentice leaves the program before completion, related costs must be paid back to the employer.

What Types of Careers Offer Apprenticeships?

If construction jobs come to mind when you think of apprenticeships, that’s logical. Many apprenticeships are in the construction trades, but not all are.

Here’s a sample of jobs and the number of active, registered apprentices in 2022.


Active apprentices in 2022

Median annual wage*

Electrical power line installers and repairers 15,249 $78,310
Heavy truck and tractor-trailer truck drivers 9,944 $48,310
Heating, AC, and refrigeration mechanics and installers 8,535 $48,630
Nursing assistants 4,033 $30,310
Firefighters 2,306 $50,700
Registered nurses 2,281 $77,600
Food service managers 1,820 $59,440
Barbers and hairstylists 1,751 $29,680
Software developers 1,219 $120,730
*2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data for the occupation as a whole

What About College or Trade School?

Alternatives to apprenticeships include attending a four-year college or a trade school. There, you’ll be provided with a broader set of knowledge along with the key skills required for your area of study.

Trade school costs less than college but still can cost thousands of dollars a semester. As an apprentice you can learn to do something you enjoy while getting paid. What’s the catch? Trade school degrees often take about two years to complete. Many apprenticeships last longer, and even getting one can be tough.

Then there’s the traditional college route. But is college worth it?

More than half of college students take out student loans, usually federal student loans but in some cases private student loans. The average borrower leaves school owing nearly $29,000.

Yet the return on investment may appear only after 10 or more years. The ROI for a bachelor’s degree is 38% after 20 years on average, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Major U.S. companies have vowed to change their hiring habits by offering career paths to people without four-year college degrees. Almost two-thirds of U.S. workers do not have a bachelor’s degree, and job screening by college degree hits minorities especially hard. But change has been slow in coming. A bachelor’s degree remains the standard in many cases.

Beyond the cost of college tuition, whether you choose an apprenticeship or a degree, you’ll need to evaluate salary and career potential using either path to find the one that’s right for you.

Student Loans, Grants, and Scholarships

Whether you choose trade school, college, or an apprenticeship with a community college component, you might need financial aid in the form of grants, or scholarships (try this scholarship search tool), federal student loans, federal work-study, or private student loans.

Private student loans can be helpful, but because they lack the benefits and borrower protections available with federal student loans, they are intended to fill in gaps after other funding sources have been spoken for.

Apprentices in a credit-bearing college program who qualify can receive federal Pell Grants.

And yes, it’s possible to take out student loans for community college.

Do hunt for scholarships. Every year sees $2 billion in unclaimed scholarships, meaning merit- and need-based aid was left on the table.

Recommended: Grants and Scholarships by State

Pros and Cons of an Apprenticeship

Here’s a snapshot of the upsides and potential downsides of apprenticeships.

Pros Cons
Apprentices can earn a salary while avoiding big student debt. An apprentice will typically start with a relatively low salary.
Apprentices build new skills through hands-on experience and classroom instruction, and may even earn credit toward a college degree. The competition to get an apprenticeship can be fierce, especially in high-paying fields.
It can open the door to a well-paid career. Many occupations still require at least a bachelor’s degree, particularly in the medical and science fields.

Apprenticeship vs Internship

Both apprenticeships and internships aim to help you gain expertise with hands-on training in a certain industry, but several differences should be noted. Here are some of the most common ones.

•   Duration: Internships typically last only one to three months, while an apprenticeship can last up to six years.

•   Pay: Apprentices receive at least the minimum wage specified by the Fair Labor Standards Act for hours on the job. Wage increases are earned as the apprentice gains and uses skills while working for the employer. Internships are usually unpaid, temporary positions.

•   Structure: Apprenticeships have a structured training plan and prepare an apprentice to fill an occupation within the organization. Internships aren’t always structured and only prepare interns through entry-level work.

•   Mentorship: Apprentices work with an experienced mentor. Internships don’t always include mentorship.

•   Credential: After completing an apprenticeship program, nationally accredited certification is awarded. Interns generally don’t receive any type of credential.

•   Job opportunities: Interns are usually in college and get an opportunity for career exploration and skill development. An apprenticeship provides in-depth training, and apprentices can potentially transition into the same role after completing the program and earn a higher salary.

The Takeaway

An apprenticeship can be an excellent way to gain access to a company or a field you wish to work in without going the traditional college route. They aren’t for everyone, though; nor are they available in every field.

If you decide to pursue a bachelor’s or graduate degree and find that you could use some extra help, a SoFi Private Student Loan could be a lifeline. The loans come with no fees and can cover up to 100% of school-certified costs.

Find the right student loan to get your career on track.

Photo credit: iStock/JohnnyGreig

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