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What Is an Apprenticeship? Complete Guide to Apprenticeships

By Josephine Nesbit · December 23, 2021 · 7 minute read

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What Is an Apprenticeship? Complete Guide to Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship program trains workers to become skilled in a trade or profession, combining paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Apprenticeship programs help workers gain professional skills and experience in a particular field while assisting employers in building a highly-skilled workforce.

There are over 24,000 apprenticeship programs across the nation, offering workers access to hundreds of occupations in fast-growing industries. Before you take on an apprenticeship, it’s important to be aware that these programs require a great deal of commitment and hands-on engagement from both employers and workers.

College may not be for everyone and an apprenticeship can be an alternative way to get your foot in the door in your preferred field. Here are some things you should know before taking on the responsibility of an apprenticeship.

What Is an Apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a way to acquire training, work experience, classroom instruction and mentorship in a particular trade. Not only are apprenticeships paid, but it’s also a doorway to well-paid, stable and in-demand jobs.

Approximately 92% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship retain employment, according to the Department of Labor, and graduates earn $300,000 more over their lifetime compared to their peers who do not complete an apprenticeship. Apprentices also receive a nationally-recognized credential within their industry upon completion of the program, and may even earn academic credit towards a college degree.

How Do Apprenticeships Work?

The majority of apprenticeships are registered either with the U.S. Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency. While programs depend on the organization, registered apprenticeships must meet certain standards , according to the National Apprenticeship Act (Fitzgerald Act).

Upon entering the apprenticeship program, apprentices receive hands-on training under the guidance of an experienced mentor. Many apprenticeships also require apprentices to take academic courses related to that career, which may be taken in a classroom, through occupational or industrial courses or even online. Apprenticeships are also paid with pay raises being given to apprentices as skill levels increase.

The eligible starting age for an apprenticeship is 16; however, some occupations require apprentices to be at least 18 years of age. Each apprenticeship’s sponsor also develops minimum requirements related to education and the ability to perform certain job functions. 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 accredited certification is awarded.

How Long Does an Apprenticeship Last?

The time required to complete an apprenticeship, which can range from one to six years , depends on the job and the program. However, the Labor Department specifies that apprentices must complete at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job learning plus 144 hours of classroom work.

Are Apprenticeships Paid?

According to the Department of Labor, the average starting wage for an apprentice is $15 per hour. Pay increases are received when new skills are learned. The average starting salary after completing an apprenticeship program is $72,000.

Do You Have to Pay for an Apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship training is typically offered by the employer at no cost to the apprentice. If there are costs associated with the program, they must be disclosed to apprentices before they agree to participate in the program.

Typical Apprenticeship Costs

Employers may ask apprentices to cover certain expenses, such as costs related to tools or educational materials. Additionally, employers may pay for the instruction but specify that if an apprentice leaves the program before completion, then related costs must be paid back to the employer.

What Types of Careers Offer Apprenticeships?

There are thousands of apprenticeship programs across a range of fields. Here are some industries that offer apprenticeships:

•   Advanced manufacturing

•   Construction

•   Energy

•   Financial services

•   Healthcare

•   Hospitality

•   Information technology and cybersecurity

•   Telecommunications

•   Transportation

Pros and Cons of an Apprenticeship

Pros Cons
Apprentices can earn a salary while avoiding student debt. An apprentice will typically start with a relatively low salary.
Build new skills through hands-on experience and classroom instruction. Apprentices can even earn credit towards a college degree. The competition is tough. Apprenticeships can be hard to get into.
It can open the door to well-paid and in-demand careers. Limited access to certain careers. If you decide to change career paths later in life, it could be challenging.


•   Earn while you learn: Apprentices can have a secure income while gaining experience in a particular field.

•   Build new skills: Apprentices can gain valuable and sought-after skills through their apprenticeship program. Not only can apprentices gain experience from field training, but there’s classroom instruction provided by apprenticeship training centers, technical schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities, which can sometimes be completed online. Apprenticeship sponsors may also work directly with community colleges to provide college credit for apprenticeship experience.

•   Opens the door to new opportunities: Apprenticeships oftentimes lead to full-time employment and workers may have better access to careers that offer competitive pay and room for advancement.


•   Start with a lower salary: Although starting salaries for graduates are higher, apprentices are typically paid a lower salary at the beginning of the apprenticeship; however, there are salary increases as new skills are acquired.

•   It can be competitive: Entry into apprenticeship programs can be very competitive, especially in high-paying industries.

•   Limited to certain fields: Changing career paths down the road could be more of a challenge. A large number of occupations still require at least an undergraduate degree, particularly in medical and science fields.

Recommended: What Is a Trade School and Is It Right for You?

Apprenticeship vs Internship

Both apprenticeships and internships are similar in that they both 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 differences:

•   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, a nationally accredited certification is awarded. Interns generally don’t receive any type of credential.

•   Job opportunities: Interns are usually still in college or some students may complete an internship during high school. Internships give a student the opportunity for career exploration and development, and to learn some new skills. An apprenticeship provides in-depth training and apprentices can potentially transition into the same role after completion of the program and earn a higher salary.

Finding an Apprenticeship

There are thousands of apprenticeship programs across the country serving numerous industries and occupations, making them fairly easy to find and apply to. Here’s how you can find one and apply.

1. Choose a Field of Work

Before you begin your search for a program, you need to decide on a particular field of work that matches your interests and skills. It’s also important to consider whether or not you meet the requirements for programs in a particular industry.

2. Look for Apprenticeship Opportunities

There are several places to start your apprenticeship search. You can use the Labor Department’s Apprenticeship Job Finder to search by keyword and location, contact your state’s apprenticeship
, 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.

3. Review and Meet Application Requirements

Once you decide on a program, check the application requirements for applicants. Most programs require a high school diploma or GED and you must be physically capable of performing the work. Other minimum requirements vary by program but can include a clean criminal record, passing a qualifying exam, or an interview.

4. Submit an Apprenticeship Application

Apprenticeship vacancies open throughout the year with each one giving deadlines for applications and start dates. Once you decide on a program and find an open spot, you must apply directly with the employer or the program sponsor.

5. Start Your Apprenticeship

Once accepted, you’ll likely have to sign a formal agreement that outlines the details of the program and your responsibilities as an apprentice. Long-term employment with the organization may also be a possibility upon successful completion of the apprenticeship.

Alternatives to Apprenticeships

Not right for you? There are alternatives to apprenticeships, such as attending a four-year institution, a community 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.

However, college can come with a hefty price tag and a large percentage of students turn to private student loans and federal aid for support. Many people also question whether college is worth it, considering there are other options available.

According to the College Board’s annual “Trends in College Pricing ” report, the average cost of attending a four-year college as an in-state student at a public university during the 2020-2021 school year was $10,560. Out-of-state students paid $27,020 on average. Community colleges are one option for students looking to make college more affordable, with the average tuition at about $5,222 per year for in-state students and $8,882 for out-of-state students.

Recommended: Options for When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s College

Beyond the cost of college tuition, whether you choose an apprenticeship or a degree, you’ll need to look closely at your preferred field of study and assess your personal situation to find the path that’s right for you.

For example, perhaps you are considering an apprenticeship vs going back to school. In this case, you may want to evaluate how you’ll pay for college as an adult in comparison to the salary you stand to earn if you pursue a degree. Then evaluate salary and career potential with an apprenticeship. Pursuing higher education is a personal choice and what’s right for you will depend on factors including your individual circumstances and career goals.

Explore Upper Education Loan Options from SoFi

Apprenticeships may not be for everyone, and students who choose to focus on a college degree may need help financing their studies. SoFi’s private student loans allow students to pay for college without the fees. That means no late fees, no application fees, or origination fees to stress about. While private loans can be helpful, because they lack the benefits and borrower protections available with federal loans — like deferment options or income-driven repayment plans, they are generally considered an option only after all sources of funding have been depleted.

The Takeaway

So what is an apprenticeship? An apprenticeship can be a suitable option if you prefer to get your foot in the door without paying for a four-year degree. Apprenticeships can also be an excellent way to gain access to a company or a particular field you wish to work in. However, they aren’t for everyone nor are they available in every field.

Students who are pursuing a college degree may look into private student loans after exhausting all other aid options, including federal student loans. If you think a private student loan may be right for you, consider SoFi’s Private Student Loans. There are no fees and borrowers can choose from four repayment plans.

Interested in learning more about using private student loans to help pay for your education? Check out what SoFi has to offer.

Photo credit: iStock/JohnnyGreig

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