Apprenticeship: What Is it? How Do I Find One?
Pop quiz: What do George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere have in common? All three were apprentices!
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Apprenticeship allows students to earn money while they train for a new career — on the job and in the classroom. The number of apprentices in California and nationwide has grown steadily in recent years, up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing workplaces and putting a hold on many apprenticeship programs.
But some prominent educational and political leaders — including Pres. Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom — tout apprenticeship as one way to solve employers' needs for skilled workers in a rapidly changing economy, while creating more, and more inclusive, opportunities for high-quality, well-paid jobs.
In 2018, then-candidate Newsom set a goal of having 500,000 active apprentices by 2029. In a report detailing how California could achieve that goal, analysts from the think tank New America wrote:
"Realizing a system that serves 500,000 active apprentices annually by 2029 would mean a half of a million Californians earning fair wages, earning debt-free postsecondary credentials, and billions of dollars of new private investment in the development of a globally competitive workforce."
California's current (and seemingly, more realistic) goal is to reach 128,000 registered apprentices in 2023, according to Eric Rood, chief of the state's Division of Apprenticeship Standards. "And we are on pace to do that," Rood said.
As of this summer, Rood said, there were some 92,000 apprentices in California.
Here's what you need to know about apprenticeships in California, including how to find one:
How does an apprenticeship work?
Apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training with supplemental instruction.
Registered apprenticeships, which are approved by the state of California or the federal government, have to meet certain standards, including:
- wages that get progressively higher as you get further along in the apprenticeship;
- supervised work experience and job training;
- related classroom instruction that's provided by a local educational agency, like a community college; and
- a nationally recognized credential that's issued at the completion of the apprenticeship.
Some, but not all apprenticeships, are sponsored by labor unions and have a joint apprenticeship committee that oversees the program.
Apprenticeships can be funded by unions, employers, state and federal grants, or a combination of these.
Aren't most apprenticeships in construction?
Yes. Apprenticeships in the building trades still make up about 75% of all apprenticeships in California. That's in part because when California awards public works contracts, it requires a certain number of apprentices to work on those job sites.
But apprenticeships are growing in many areas, including information technology, health care, manufacturing and education.
State leaders are looking to grow apprenticeships in these non-traditional fields in order to get closer to Newsom's goal. They're also working on developing regional apprenticeship hubs, such as the LAUNCH Apprenticeship Network, and consortiums, such as the Inland Empire cybersecurity apprenticeship initiative, so that groups of employers, local schools and community organizations can work together to boost apprenticeship programs.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a registered apprenticeship over college?
For the apprentice:
- You get paid while you learn.
- You are very unlikely to have to take on student debt.
- You are guaranteed a progressive increase in wages.
- You're likely to be learning the most up-to-date technology and/or practices because you are learning on the job.
- You will earn a nationally recognized, post-secondary education credential upon completion (many apprentices also earn college credits).
- Wages, especially in the building trades, can be high. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average starting salary for graduating apprentices is $72,000.
- If the apprenticeship is sponsored by a labor union, the apprentice also benefits from the union's collective bargaining agreement.
- You may find it hard to turn your apprenticeship into a college degree.
- You will likely get paid less than a full employee while you are an apprentice.
- You may have to attend classes at night or on weekends.
- You might have a hard time getting in. Some apprenticeships are very competitive, especially in high-paying construction industries.
- You might have a hard time finding one. Apprenticeships are rare in many industries beyond the building trades.
- Not all apprenticeships lead to good-paying jobs.
- In the building trades, some women and people of color report facing discrimination and harassment on the job.
For the employer:
- You can review and/or design curriculum to meet your workforce needs.
- You can diversify your workforce pipeline beyond college graduates and other traditional employee pools.
- In the construction industry, you can qualify for state public works contracts that have apprenticeship requirements.
- You can take advantage of state and federal funding for workforce training.
- Setting up an apprenticeship requires a significant amount of legwork, including designing the apprenticeship and related curriculum, submitting the paperwork to register the apprenticeship, and keeping up with paperwork, for example, to request any subsequent changes to the apprenticeship and/or related curriculum.
- You will have to dedicate resources and mentors to training the apprentices.
How does apprenticeship differ from trade school?
You'll likely pay to attend a trade school (though you can get state and federal student aid to help with the cost). You're also likely to get less practical experience in a trade school than you would with an apprenticeship.
But since many construction apprenticeships are hard to get into, trade school could be a faster, more practical option.
How do you find an apprenticeship?
Let's be honest here, finding an apprenticeship in your chosen field can be difficult and require patience. Some apprenticeships in the building trades operate on cycles, and you could have to wait many months to even apply.
Traditionally, people have found out about apprenticeships through word of mouth, or what some people in the apprenticeship world call "friends, brothers and in-laws."
Many community-based organizations and job centers can provide information about local apprenticeships.
You can also search for apprenticeships on the website of the California Department of Industrial Relations or the U.S. Department of Labor by location and industry. Some apprenticeships listed on the national site will take you to a link where you can apply directly. On the state apprenticeship site, you'll have to contact the sponsor to get more information about applying.
Some community colleges, like Santiago Canyon College, list all apprenticeship programs associated with the college on one webpage.In the Inland Empire, the LAUNCH Apprenticeship Network has information about local apprenticeships for prospective apprentices, employers and schools.
What is a pre-apprenticeship program?
Pre-apprenticeship programs help prepare students for apprenticeships in competitive fields like the building trades. These programs can also help students gauge whether a certain industry is right for them.
Some pre-apprenticeship programs, like Women In Non Traditional Employment Roles, help specific populations (in this case, women) prepare for, find and succeed in apprenticeship programs through ongoing case management and relationships with employers.
How does race and gender play into apprenticeships?
Women are hugely underrepresented in apprenticeships, especially in high-paying construction apprenticeships. In California, women make up about 3% of construction apprentices despite comprising around half the population.
Women of color make up an even smaller sliver of apprentices in the construction trades, and some have reported not getting the same level of training during their apprenticeships as their male counterparts.
Women and Black apprentices also earn lower wages, overall, than other apprentices, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. That's in part because women, in particular, are more likely to apprentice in lower-paying professions, like child care and less-skilled health care jobs (e.g. nursing assistant, pharmacy support).
The report found that Black apprentices had the lowest wages of any racial or ethnic group upon exiting an apprenticeship — a little more than half the wages earned by their white counterparts.
Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws and U.S. Department of Labor regulations include measures intended to ensure apprenticeship is available to a wider, more diverse pool of candidates, but critics say greater enforcement is needed.
On the flip side, Kelly Mackey, regional director for strategic partnerships for California's Office of Apprenticeship and Workforce Innovation, sees apprenticeship as one way to solve the lack of diversity in fields like cybersecurity. "Almost invariably when we engage with potential [apprenticeship] program sponsors, they really want to create diversity within their workplace and they just don't know how to make that happen," she said. Opening up career pathways that don't require a college degree and partnering with community-based organizations to offer apprenticeships to underrepresented populations can help bridge that gap, she said.