Apprenticeship Programs Train for Careers—and for Life

More than half teach financial literacy, communication, other skills

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Feb 2, 2016

Vocation training in traditional trade skills, once a fixture of U.S. high schools, has fallen out of favor. That’s left companies in the construction, manufacturing and other skill-intensive industries turning instead to apprenticeship programs, including those run by labor unions, often with oversight from government agencies.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) currently sponsors about 19,000 registered apprentice programs, employing more than 410,000 active apprentices, which combine on-the-job training and technical instruction.

Apprenticeship programs are likely to become even more prevalent. CareerBuilder’s 2016 job forecast noted that 63 percent of U.S. employers are concerned by a growing skills gap, and 33 percent of employers plan to hire low-skill workers and train them for high-skill jobs in 2016.

Success in Seattle

One successful apprenticeship program is managed by Greg Christiansen, apprenticeship coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers union in Seattle (Ironworkers local 86), part of the Ironworkers International. Christiansen’s district covers the western half of Washington state.

“Ours is a four-year program, currently with about 500 active apprentices, all out there working,” he explained. Up to 165 companies—including regional giants such as Boeing—employ apprentices at any given time under the program, which is registered with both the DOL and Washington state. “But the program is completely funded by members of the Ironworkers,” he noted.

“We’re proactive in recruiting for the program,” Christiansen said. “I recruit from high schools and colleges. In Washington we have many Native American tribes, and we recruit on reservations quite a bit. I also recruit from the prisons, just about everywhere.”

Apprentices in the program start off making $26.03 an hour, “so it affords a good, livable wage,” he explained. After working in the field for six to nine months, apprentices spend a month in more advanced training. “Over the four years, one month per year is spent on advanced training classes, where they attend school for 40 hours per week for four weeks at one of our two training centers. Then they get dispatched back out to either the same employer or a different employer, depending on the type of training they want.”

Altogether, apprentices receive 820 hours of classroom instruction over four years, along with 6,000 to 8,000 hours of on-the-job training. “When they hit that mark, they can take their journeymen’s test,” Christiansen said.

As they go through their apprenticeship, their wages rise relative to their experience and time in the program, he said. “After working at least 750 hours and six months, apprentices are eligible for a step increase in pay. By the time they get to their fourth year, they’re going to be at journeymen’s pay, which is just over $40 an hour. Then, many go on to become foremen with their companies.”

The Seattle area has one of the highest percentages of women in the Ironworkers’ program, currently at 8 percent, Christiansen reported.

While apprentices need to be able to read, write and speak English, there is no requirement to have a high school diploma or GED to enter the program. “That affords good opportunities to people out there” who may be from disadvantaged backgrounds, he said.

But some applicants have college degrees. “They say they’re trying to get a job that pays this good and to pay off some student loans,” Christiansen noted. “They tell us they can’t make this kind of money with what they’ve studied.”

Life Skills Added

“The time is right for more attention to be paid to these programs,” said Julie Stich, CEBS, research director at the International Foundation for Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) in Brookfield, Wis.

“There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the challenge for younger people to find successful careers. The skilled trades are definitely a viable option for someone looking for a potential good career. Apprenticeship programs deliver the skills and training that individuals need.”

In a new development, she noted, nearly 60 percent of apprenticeship programs are looking beyond the job title of electrician, carpenter, plumber or construction craft laborer and offering life skills training as part of the curriculum, with an additional 20 percent considering adding such training, according to a new IFEBP report, Top Trends in Jointly Managed Apprenticeship Programs: 2016 Survey. Life skills training currently being offered through apprenticeship programs includes:

Personal safety (79.9 percent of surveyed apprenticeships).

Financial literacy skills (71.6 percent).

Communication/social skills (64.4 percent).

Computer/technology skills (56.7 percent).

“We’re seeing a focus by programs on the apprentice as a whole person,” Stich said. “Employers and unions are realizing that, in order for [apprentices] to be successful in their future work, they need training in more than just how to do skilled trades.”

Providing a mix of on-the-job training and life skills learning “is something that would be good for all employers looking at workforce development to consider offering,” Stich noted.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow me on Twitter.​

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect