By Jon Cook
If sitting in a classroom full time isn't your idea of learning, or if you're just unsure about what career field you're interested in, you might want to think about an apprenticeship. Apprentices train for a career by working on the job and taking related classes—all while getting paid.
An apprenticeship is an agreement between a worker (that's you)—called an apprentice—and a sponsor—the company employing the apprentice. The agreement says an apprentice must complete two requirements—one on-the-job training requirement and one classroom requirement. Apprentices complete the two requirements over a specified period of time—usually one or more years.
To complete the on-the-job work, apprentices are employed by their sponsor, and they complete the classroom training at a nearby technical college or union training center.
Pairing on-the-job learning with related classroom instruction sets apprenticeships apart from other career training, says a top official in the Office of Apprenticeship, a division of the Labor Department (DOL). He says it's all contextual learning, so it resonates with many people who haven't had success with traditional learning.
An apprentice is somewhere between employee and student. For many folks, this arrangement makes sense.
"For many people, classroom teaching alone isn't the answer," says Chris Balme, co-founder and executive director of Spark, a youth apprenticeship program in San Francisco and Los Angeles. "Also, you should have hands-on training for every step of education, and apprenticeships are a way for this to happen."
what's in it for you
According to the DOL, apprentices in registered programs can expect these benefits:
See DOL regulations for apprenticeships.
Find more information about opportunities and regulations in your state.
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- A paycheck from day one
- Hands-on career training in one of 1,000 varied professions
- An education—You'll have the option of earning college credit—which, in many cases, your employer pays for.
- A career—Once you complete the program, you'll be on your way to a career.
- Little or no school debt
- National industry certification—You'll be trained to take certification courses/exams anywhere in the U.S.
- Recognizable connections—Many of the nation's largest companies, such as CVS Pharmacy and UPS, have registered apprenticeship programs.
In addition to these benefits, the DOL indicates that on average, people who complete an apprenticeship earn $250,000 more during their lifetimes than people who complete only an equivalent level of technical training.
DOL sets the standard
As far as regulation goes, the DOL oversees registered apprenticeships with basic rules that sponsors must follow. The DOL has been in charge since Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Act in 1937.
The DOL employs 100 field staff members who ensure that apprentices have a valuable learning experience and remain safe on the job.
"It has to be meaningful work for an apprentice to be able to get excited about the career," says Balme.
Most apprenticeship programs are time-based, meaning you need to work a certain number of hours a year for a certain length of time. The apprenticeship duration depends on the field of work, but usually requires between one and seven years. In addition to the time requirement, sponsors also may administer competency tests to apprentices to test their progress.
Periodic competency tests often are part of apprenticeships offered in quickly changing industries, such as health care and information technology. There tend to be no periodic competency exams in many of the construction trades, which continue to be the cornerstone of apprenticeship enrollment. The construction trades more often require only a final certification test in order to become certified in the trade.
The construction trades employ the highest number of apprentices, but these industries have been hit hard by the struggling economy. The recession has forced many sponsors to cut back or eliminate apprenticeship programs altogether. As a result, finding a construction apprenticeship may become a more competitive process than in the past, but there still are many opportunities.
When choosing apprentices, sponsors create their own selection standards.
Sponsors may use fair aptitude tests, interviews, physical tests, school grades, and previous work experience as selection criteria, according to the DOL Web site.
so where are they?Apprenticeships are posted like jobs. You have to research and find them just like you would find any other job. You can look at job posting sites such as Monster.com. Check your local Career One Stop center to find out about opportunities in your area.
There are interesting and innovative apprenticeship program offers in every state..
For example, Alaska has a program with energy companies based there. Take a look at the careers related to oil and gas.
watch out for bogus programs
When searching, make sure you're looking for an officially "registered" apprenticeship.
According to the DOL official, many unregistered programs may be little more than glorified coffee-fetching internships, because they don't follow the DOL quality assurance regulations.
Unregistered apprenticeships don't have the portability, because there is no third-party validation for your training, says the DOL official. The national recognition and a portable certificate probably won't be there with the unregistered apprenticeship.
do your research
Before you accept an apprenticeship, research what you are getting into. Not only is an apprenticeship time-consuming, it's challenging, too.
Be realistic about the physical challenges and possible dangers of the industries you're interested in. Make sure you are willing and able to lift heavy objects all day or stay on your feet for 15 hours at a time if that's what the career requires.
If you do a little research and understand what to expect, you'll have a much better chance of completing the apprenticeship in a field that suits you. Remember, the work will be hard, but if you are willing to put in the time, you'll have quality training that puts you on track for a successful career.
There is a certain amount of maturity needed before you start an apprenticeship if you're going to complete it, says the DOL official. Remember, you are going to be challenged from day one.