This article is about going to a trade school or becoming an apprentice to learn your trade. This article isn’t meant to make choices for you, but it will hopefully give you the information to decide which is the better path for you to take—trade school or an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships teach transferable skills in order to completely prepare the apprentice for the trade.
There are over 22,000 registered apprenticeships in the United States. And, over 533,000 apprentices going through these programs in order to become skilled tradespeople. The amount of programs out there may seem like a lot, but being accepted into an apprenticeship can be difficult. If you’ve applied and are waiting, consider taking some courses at the community college or through a trade school.
Very often, apprenticeship programs work in conjunction with a community college, so you’re also building up college credits while you earn money learning the trade you’re interested in. Not all apprentices complete their training. In 2017, there were over 200,000 apprentices and only 64,000 of those went on to finish.
If you’re concerned about the job market once you move on from your apprenticeship, don’t be. It’s not like the United States has an overabundance of skilled tradespeople. In fact, we don’t have enough. The average age of our skilled trades worker is nearing retirement, and that’s a lot of knowledgeable people about to exit. There aren’t enough trained people to fill that increasing gap. Which means, you’ll have a job if you choose a skilled trades career, no matter if you complete an apprenticeship or go through a post-secondary training program.
- Complete high school or get your GED.
- Apply for an apprenticeship through a union or local contractor.
- Think about heading to a trade school if you have to wait to start an apprenticeship.
- Your state may require you to register as an apprentice, so find out what you need to do to comply with your state.
Going to a trade school will get you career-ready quicker than going to a traditional college, because you aren’t spending time learning about subjects that have no relation to your chosen profession.
Trade schools are available for pretty much any career training you would be interested in, from cosmetology to culinary, plumbing to construction, and way beyond.
If at all possible, stay away from programs that don’t come with accreditation; those could prohibit you from getting the necessary licensing and certifications that would allow you to work in your field. And you may not be able to transfer non-accredited credits to another school.
Trade School Prerequisites
- High school diploma or GED
- Be old enough
- Placement exam
- State residency
Read: Applying to Trade School: Requirements for a more in depth discussion on each of these.
Use the search application to connect with a school near you.
Pros and Cons of Trade Schools and Apprenticeships
- The cost is significantly less than traditional college.
- Your courses are based on what trade you’re going into; there are no core classes like English and science.
- Smaller class sizes will give you more personalized attention than a traditional school setting.
- The class start dates are more convenient that semester-based schools, and the course scheduling is usually more flexible, too.
- It’s more costly than an apprenticeship.
- You aren’t always guaranteed a job upon completion. However, may trade schools do offer job placement help.
- You will need to choose the trade school you attend with some caution. Many trade schools as “for profit,” and not all of them live up to their promises.
Once you’ve graduated with your certification, you may still have to complete an apprenticeship.
- There is minimal to no yearly out-of-pocket cost.
- You’ll incur no debt. None.
- You earn money as you learn your trade. Your hourly rate will go up to coincide with your experience.
- You receive a priceless hands-on education.
- You’re usually hired by your trainer, so job placement is almost guaranteed.
- It can be harder to get into an apprenticeship.
- Not all apprenticeships will allow access to a job without a college degree (such as the medical field and some sciences).
- You will miss out on the classroom/college social aspect. But, that’s not always a bad thing, either. It depends on your personality and personal network.
- You may pigeonhole yourself into a trade, so it’s a good idea to thoroughly research the different trades before choosing one. Unless you know exactly what you want, then go for it.
With most apprenticeships, once you’ve completed the required hours, you are considered a journeyman and can work on your own.
Trades Where Apprenticeship is Expected
Again, there’s no right or wrong way if you’re stuck deciding between an apprenticeship or trade school. But, there are certain trades where the expectation is you’ll go in as an apprentice.
Best trades to go into under an apprenticeship:
- Elevator installer and repairer: This career is learned through a four-year apprenticeship. There are 35 states that require you to be licensed, so check with yours to find out the details.
- Pile-driver operator: After you receive your high school diploma or GED, you’ll complete a four-year apprenticeship as a pile driver, which is through the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.
- Structural iron and steel workers: You’ll go through a three- to four-year apprenticeship to become a structural iron and steel worker. You may also want to think about picking up welding because it’s a beneficial skill to have for this career.
- Plumber, pipefitter, and steamfitter: Plumbers learn the trade through an apprenticeship. You’ll train for four years under a journeyman plumber before becoming one yourself.
- Electrician: Training for this hands-on job calls for an apprenticeship that takes four years to finish before becoming a journeyman.
- Carpenters: You’ll learn to be a carpenter through an apprenticeship that will take four years or longer to complete.
- Solar photovoltaic installer: You’ll need your high school diploma or GED before you can go through the one-year training to become a solar photovoltaic installer.
Most other trades will require you to have some sort of formal training through a trade school prior to starting your apprenticeship.
Making Your Decision
The truth is, one way is not better than the other. Both have their up- and downsides; you just have to choose which works best for you. Both options, trade schools or apprenticeships, are very solid. It’s just a matter of you figuring out if you want to go the school path, or go straight into that apprenticeship. Either way, you won’t make a bad decision by choosing to go into a skilled trade.
You can find an apprenticeship using the finder feature on Apprenticeship.gov through the Department of Labor.