Apprenticeships a Little-Traveled Path to Jobs

Apprenticeships can mean high-paying jobs, without degrees or heavy student loan bills.

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There are around 398,000 registered apprentices in the United States, according to the Labor Department.

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Ray Lambert is almost done with his four years of school, and he already has a steady income at a good job.

"I absolutely love it. It's something different every day. There's always a problem to be solved," he says.

Lambert is a building engineer for an apartment management company in McLean, Va. He does the tasks that many city-dwellers take for granted: making sure the boilers and air conditioning are working, for example. Tonight, he has come early to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 99's office, a modest building in an upscale section of Washington, D.C. The 27-year-old from Herndon, Va., sips a bottle of soda and relaxes as he waits for classes to start for the night. He has good reason to relax: secure job prospects for years to come.

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"This is a very specific trade; you have to know electricity, HVAC, you have to know everything. And it becomes very widely sought-after," he says.

Lambert is not about to graduate from college; he's about to finish an apprenticeship with the IUOE. And unlike the undergraduates down the street at Georgetown University, many of whom are doubtless toiling away at unpaid internships and furiously emailing resumes, he currently earns a comfortable living. And he won't have to sweat student loans; his program is free, aside from books and union dues, which according a training coordinator with the program tend to run students $49 to $59, depending on their pay.

Though apprenticeship programs vary, many are variations on a theme: students spend a few years learning a trade both in the classroom and at an assigned job site. Throughout that training, students' pay slowly increases along with their experience. In Lambert's program, for example, a student starts out earning 50 percent of what the engineer at his site earns. By the second semester of the fourth year, that share is up to 85 percent. The site engineers who work with the D.C. IUOE program tend to make $30 to $38 per hour—that equals around $62,000 to $79,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek. That means that pay for a starting apprentice can be well over $30,000—a pay level you can't earn handing out towels at the college rec center.

Why isn't this kind of education more popular? In the U.S., more high school students likely hear about the Donald Trump kind of apprentice than the IUOE kind. There are around 398,000 registered apprentices in the United States, according to the Labor Department (that count includes apprenticeship programs like many led by labor unions and run by individual companies, but not apprentice-like positions, like hospital interns). That's not a tiny number, but it's down significantly from a decade ago; in 2003, there were nearly 490,000 apprentices in the nation. U.S. apprenticeship numbers are also dwarfed by figures from even much smaller countries. Germany's apprenticeship system trains around 1.5 million people per year, with apprentices accounting for around two-thirds of the total working population. Many credit that system for the country's low youth unemployment rate in comparison to fellow troubled Euro zone countries. Germany's centuries-old system is often cited as a model for other countries. The U.K., seeing Germany's success, is trying to ramp up its own program, in which more than half a million people began apprenticeships last year. 

A Question of Culture ... and Unionization

Could the U.S. emulate Europe's apprenticeship systems?

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The answer depends on whom you ask. "In the United States, it's just not in our DNA," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "It's a process that's almost unimaginable in the U.S.: it's a collaborative, joint governing system that represents the workers and the employer and the government." It's not just a collaboration between the workers and the firms; it requires a certain amount of government oversight. The Department of Labor, for example, is involved in the certification process by which registered apprentices get nationally recognized credentials. But some businesses may see that as government meddling in business' training processes.