National Apprenticeship Week 2020 is coming to a close—but the impact of this training pathway extends far beyond seven days of the year. Earlier this week I shared the story of Austin Boop, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who started his career as an electrical apprentice. To close out NAW 2020, I want to share more perspectives on apprenticeship from those who live it—the good, the bad and the ugly. Here’s what three apprentices and two apprenticeship program directors had to say about their apprenticeship experiences.
The false dichotomy of college versus apprenticeship
“Never the twain shall meet”—that’s a common misperception about college and apprenticeship. But modern apprenticeships are starting to bring these two disparate pathways together. “Most young people are pushed toward college,” says Pete Teigland, Training Director at Ironworkers Local #512 in St. Paul, Minnesota. “We get a lot of people who tried college and find their way to us.”
While some go to college and later join an apprenticeship program, others do it in reverse order. Tom Aasheim, Director of Technical Education at Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest (FTIUM), believes there is value in both approaches. In FTIUM’s model, apprenticeship can also be an on-ramp to a college degree. “As part of our three-year apprenticeship program, we also offer an associate’s degree program for any apprentice who completes their program and takes an additional five college classes.”
Despite the “college for all” mindset prevalent in most high schools in America, Aasheim believes that things are changing. “We have started to see some schools going back to career technical training and supporting the fact that not everyone is going to go to college.” One thing is clear: college and apprenticeship are no longer mutually exclusive.
“Knowledge is always a noble pursuit, but there are many ways to be a student,” says third-year ironworker apprentice Emily Sjostrom. “There is a lot of societal pressure to get a degree, but it's not the only option.”
Rewards beyond the paycheck
Just as a college education can confer more than just a degree, so also apprenticeship can deliver more than just a lifelong, marketable skill. Pride in your profession is one such benefit. “Our apprentices are proud to be working on a team, proud to be making a living wage with excellent benefits, and proud to be part of a union that represents the hardest-working men and women in the industry,” says Teigland. “As they learn new things and start to apply them in the field, you see them taking pride in their work and accomplishments,” adds Aasheim.
And the work is anything but monotonous. “Our apprentices get to build everything from barber shops to bridges and popcorn stands to power houses,” says Teigland. “Currently, we have close to 20 apprentices erecting wind turbines all over southern and western Minnesota, and others are working on a huge hospital project in downtown Duluth.”
There’s also the reward of personal development. “The apprentices have a growing confidence in their ability as they go through the program,” says Aasheim.
Of course, apprenticeships also lead to monetary rewards. “Apprenticeship allows you to acquire a skill without going into debt, plus you will also get paid as you learn,” says Aasheim. “My career as a journeyworker painter has allowed me to raise a family and live a comfortable life for the past 25 years.”
“We have many apprentices that have risen to become leadmen and foremen for our contractors,” adds Teigland. “There are endless opportunities for those who are willing to work hard.”
What makes apprenticeship tough
As valuable as apprenticeships are, they’re not easy. It’s a demanding pathway that requires you to work, often in extreme weather, while attending school full time. “Ironwork isn't for everyone; you have to be adaptable and work hard in harsh conditions,” says Sjostrom.
“The most challenging aspect of my apprenticeship has been the emotional toll that comes with learning the ropes in a new environment/culture,” Sjostrom says. “You really want to put your best foot forward, but you're bound to make mistakes. A lot of them.”
Ironworkers in particular often find themselves working far from home. “It's hard being away for weeks on end, not seeing my wife and kids,” says Terry Loken, a first-year ironworker apprentice. “It's the biggest challenge I've faced so far.”
Not everyone succeeds in their apprenticeship, but those who do share a few crucial traits, says Teigland. “First, they show up for work, for school, and for their families and give their best effort. Second, they have grit. The type of work and the weather are just a couple things that each ironworker must endure to get the job done. Third, they can work as a team, depending on each other for safety, quality, and production.”
Becoming a better person through apprenticeship
Loken credits apprenticeship for his personal growth. “I have learned to be a better man, husband and father,” he says. “In this profession it's all about details. You need to pay attention to the smallest details at work and at home.”
“The work I do has changed me,” says Sjostrom. “I get a lot of satisfaction from conquering new problems and I'm a happier and less anxious person because of it.”
Third-year ironworker apprentice Jenna Wittner expresses a similar sentiment. “I have grown a lot professionally and as a person through my apprenticeship,” she says. “As I move up in my career as a journeyman, I will continue to advance my education through job-related courses and leadership development strategies. The hard work and learning never stop.”
Apprenticeship for the next generation
Wittner has no regrets about her choice to become an apprentice. “It is worth taking the time and practice to become a master of your craft,” she says. “Skill-building education just works, and that is what an apprenticeship is. I think apprenticeships are valuable for almost every career field.”
As a veteran in his trade, Aasheim is also satisfied with his decision to pursue his career through apprenticeship. “I truly believe that a registered trades apprenticeship has been one of the best choices that I have made in my life,” says Aasheim.
Teigland hopes more young people will consider apprenticeship—including his own son. “I have a high school senior who can do anything he wants to when he graduates. I would be proud to have him pick a trade and get into an apprenticeship program.”
For those considering apprenticeship, Sjostrom has a simple word of advice. “Don't worry about whether or not you have relatable experience; apprenticeships are there for people who want to learn,” she says. “If you find an apprenticeship for a career you think you'd be happy in, go for it.”
Read the article on forbes.com.