Earn While You Learn: Why Apprenticeships Are Hot
Life + Money

Earn While You Learn: Why Apprenticeships Are Hot

Apprenticeships can pay more than internships, and cost a lot less than college.


At a time when the cost of college is skyrocketing, and the rate of unemployment for millennials remains high, apprenticeships can be an affordable way to “earn while you learn.” Like the best internships, you acquire valuable skills and on-the-job training. Unlike most internships, apprenticeships pay higher rates--sometimes as much as twice the federal minimum wage. Yahoo! Finance recently called apprenticeships “the other four-year degree.”

Jillian (who did not want to give her last name) is in the first year of an apprenticeship with Local Union No. 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). At 27, she is not the typical union apprentice. For one thing, she’s female, and she already holds a college degree from Cazenovia College, where she majored in photography and minored in art history and theatre.

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“The guarantee of a decent wage made it very appealing,” Jillian says of why she chose to apprentice, “and the benefits definitely help.” Unlike many of her friends, who financed most of their college educations through student loans, she was able to keep her college debt to $10,000. As an apprentice, her starting salary is $14 per hour, but she will receive pay increases as she advances through her training. She can expect to make about $50 an hour when she graduates from the program in three or four years. The Department of Labor says the average starting salary for apprentices who’ve completed their training is $50,000.

“It’s definitely nice to get paid for the work that you’re doing,” says Jillian, who had already worked as an unpaid intern during college. “Internships are the worst,” she says. “I did a few during college. And then I found out that when you get out of college, people still want you to work for free.” She found work in construction as a carpenter’s assistant when she heard about IBEW through NEW (Nontraditional Employment for Women), a non-profit that works with unions to place women into higher-paying jobs in construction trades. “Now I’m getting a BA in Labor Studies,” she says of the free tuition benefit, “and the union will pay for any education past that.”

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This fall the Department of Labor will disburse $100 million in 25 internship grants to help expand registered apprenticeship programs in such fast-growing industries as healthcare, biotechnology, information technology, and advanced manufacturing as part of the American Apprenticeship Initiative.

Just this week Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced new legislation to encourage employers to increase the number of apprenticeships. The “Apprentice and Jobs Training Act of 2015” bill would offer a $5,000 tax credit for employers that hire apprentices enrolled in a Federal or State registered apprentice program and use apprenticeship programs to train workers in high-demand professions in the food and beverage industry, healthcare, and the manufacturing and technology sectors. The bill also would allow veterans placed in apprenticeships to receive credit for previous military training and experience.

Currently under review in Congress is the LEAP Act (Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs), a bipartisan bill in Congress introduced by Senator Tim Scott, R-SC and Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ that aims to provide $1000 to $1,500 in federal tax credits to businesses that hired apprentices. Hillary Clinton unveiled a similar proposal last week to reduce youth unemployment. Her aides cited an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds, a figure that was nearly double among African-Americans.

The U.S. has over 410,000 apprentices, and hopes to increase that number to 750,000 by 2020. When it comes to apprenticeships, the U.S. trails far behind other countries. By comparison, Germany offers more than 1.4 million apprenticeships to participants in more than 300 fields. Great Britain is moving to add 3 million apprenticeships by the year 2020.

This article was updated at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 25.

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