An apprenticeship can provide you with invaluable on-the-job training while you collect a paycheck. If you’re hoping to spend your career in a specific trade, it can also be a great way to avoid student loan debt.

With sometimes fierce competition, though, obtaining an apprenticeship isn’t always easy. Here’s what you need to know about how apprenticeships work, the different options you have and how to get an apprenticeship.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a paid vocational training program that allows you to learn the skills necessary for a specific trade. You’ll typically get the benefit of on-the-job training from one or more mentors in addition to classroom instruction, and you’ll receive credentials once you’ve completed the program.

Apprenticeship programs can last anywhere from one to six years, depending on the trade. Instead of paying your way through an apprenticeship as you would with a college degree program, you’ll be paid as a full-time employee. You may even get college credit, which you can use if you plan to complete a degree at some point.

Types of apprenticeships

There are many different types of apprenticeships from which you can choose. Some of the more common types that you might associate with this path are electrician, plumber and tattoo apprenticeships. But there are many others that you may come across, including:

  • Construction worker.
  • Mechanic.
  • HVAC installer or repair technician.
  • Welder.
  • Elevator installer or repair technician.
  • Carpenter.
  • Interior designer.
  • Veterinary technician.
  • Dental assistant.
  • Paramedic.
  • Health home aide.
  • Pharmacy technician.
  • Paralegal.
  • Chef.
  • Computer programmer.
  • Cosmetologist.
  • Photographer.
  • Tailor.

This is just a glimpse of the many apprenticeship programs that can be available where you live. If you’re interested in a specific career path, run an internet search for apprenticeship programs in your area to determine if there’s a potential match.

How to get an apprenticeship

If you’re interested in pursuing an apprenticeship, here are a few steps you can take to get started:

  1. Search for opportunities: Apprenticeships are typically provided by program sponsors or employers directly. Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s apprenticeship finder tool to look for opportunities in your area. You can filter by location, occupation, company name or other keywords. You can also search online using job posting websites.
  2. Complete the prerequisites: Apprenticeship programs typically require you to meet certain requirements before you can enter the program. That may include an interview, an exam, some coursework or other stipulations. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of options, find out what the prerequisites are and get started, then submit your application.
  3. Leverage connections, if possible: If you know someone who works in the trade you’re considering, consider trying to leverage your network to get your foot in the door. It won’t necessarily guarantee you a spot, but it can help.
  4. Have a backup plan: Apprenticeships can be very competitive, so don’t pin all of your hopes onto getting into a program immediately. You may need to wait some time for the program to work its way through its waitlist until it reaches you. In the meantime, consider having a backup plan, such as attending college or getting a job.

How hard is it to get an apprenticeship?

Your chances of landing an apprenticeship depend largely on your field, your location and your preferred program. That said, you’re definitely not the only person who wants to avoid a costly stint as a college student, so apprenticeships can be highly competitive.

To improve your chances of being accepted, find opportunities to network with people in your chosen trade. It can also help if you have any kind of experience in the trade, as it gives you a leg up on novices who may take longer to catch up.

Regardless of how long it takes, don’t be afraid to wait if it’s what you want to do with your career. You can always gain experience at a different job or take college classes while you wait.

Is an apprenticeship worth it?

Whether or not an apprenticeship is worth it depends on your career goals and your situation. Carefully consider both the benefits and the drawbacks of these programs before you proceed.

Some of the benefits are:

  • You’ll earn money while you get experience and training instead of taking on student loan debt.
  • You can get the necessary credentials for in-demand skills.
  • The instruction portion of the program may count as college credit, which may come in handy if you decide to pursue college at some point in the future.
  • Some apprenticeships are shorter than a college degree program.

In contrast, the potential downsides include:

  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll get placed into a program; even if you do, it can take time, so you’ll need to have other plans while you wait.
  • Apprenticeships aren’t available for all job fields, so they’re worth it only if you want to make a career in certain trades.
  • In some cases, it can take longer than a college degree to complete the program.

If you’re not sure about whether an apprenticeship would be worth it, reach out to people in the field you’re considering and ask about their experience. You can also use online forums like Reddit to ask questions as they come up. Because an apprenticeship can be a big commitment, it’s crucial that you take your time to determine if it’s the right fit for you.

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