How Do You Enter a Trade?


November 10, 2015
Apprenticeship has changed from the old days.

Following in your father’s footsteps has a long tradition in the skilled trades. Many if not most of today’s trade workers entered the field because that’s what their father or some other family member did for a living. Often Dad owned the business and it was only natural for Junior to learn the ropes so he could take over when Dad retired. Many of today’s plumbing, HVAC and electrical companies fit this pattern of family businesses.

In the old days, if you didn’t have a father, brother, uncle or close friend in the trade you would have a hard time image of father and son plumbersgetting accepted into that trade’s apprenticeship program. Who-you-know networks were unfair, but that’s just the way it was. The system had some positive aspects in that it helped inspire pride in craftsmanship and esprit de corps, but the system also made it hard for outsiders to become skilled trade workers. Racial minorities and women in particular found it hard to penetrate the walls of exclusion.

Trade apprenticeship programs in the old days mostly were run by trade unions in conjunction with the contractors who employed union workers. That’s still the case in some parts of the country where unions continue to enjoy a measure of strength, but in most of the United States a vast majority of skilled trade works are nonunion, especially in the service sector. That means most of today’s apprentices are sponsored by individual companies or nonunion employer organizations.

Modern apprenticeship programs, union and nonunion, by and large are now wide open to anyone with the aptitude and desire to become a skilled trade worker. Rather than excluding people, a big problem faced by apprenticeship recruiters nowadays is finding enough qualified people interested in learning a trade.

In the old days most aspiring trade workers entered apprenticeship right out of high school while in their late teens. Today’s school counselors have a tendency to channel everyone they advise into a college path. Thus, many of today’s apprentices are people in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s who have decided upon a career change. Many of them are college graduates who either couldn’t find work in their fields of study or who decided later in life that they like working with their hands more than sitting at a desk. And, whereas many apprenticeship recruiters in the old days discriminated against racial minorities and women, most of today’s recruiters welcome them with open arms. Some even have outreach programs aimed at complying with affirmative action mandates.

That’s if you can pass muster. To succeed in a skilled trade you need to have a superior mechanical aptitude and be at least average or a little above average in math, science and reading comprehension. You also need computer skills. Apprenticeship combines both classroom and hands-on field instruction, and one of its biggest appeals is that apprentices get paid while they learn the trade. Pay scales are modest for apprentices but it’s usually enough to live on while awaiting bigger paydays upon graduation to full-fledged trade status.

If there is no apprenticeship program in your area or for some reason you can’t get into one, the next best avenue for entering your trade of choice is to attend a vocational/technical school that specializes in the skilled trades. These schools charge tuition that is usually a small fraction of what you would pay to go to college. Vo-tech schools sometimes are affiliated with local community colleges or they may be independent entities. Often they have relationships with trade employers that enable students to participate in work-study arrangements that closely resemble the classroom/hands-on training of traditional apprenticeship programs. Sometimes employers will even pay part or all of the tuition for promising youngsters who work for them.

A third avenue exists for entering the trades. It simply requires knocking at the front door. I’ll address it in my next blog.