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Apprenticeships Get A Bad Rap, But They Offer Paths To Lucrative Careers

Jordan Washington switched careers to be an electrician, which he's learning on the job as part of a five-year apprenticeship. [WOSU]
Jordan Washington switched careers to be an electrician, which he's learning on the job as part of a five-year apprenticeship.

Driving a semi-truck is a job that gives you plenty of time to think – too much, actually, for Jordan Washington. He says the job paid well, and it was fun in the beginning until the monotony sunk in.

“But then after a while, I’m just like, 'O.K., I’m bored. This is not for me,’” Washington says.


By the time Washington was driving trucks, he had three kids and needed something better-paying. The only way to get one of those, he thought, was through college.

“My parents were always pushing, ‘Gotta go to school, gotta get the degree,’ but it never resonated with me,” he says. “People have all this debt, they're unemployed. I just kept looking for something until I found something that was for me.”

Washington didn’t want to go to a university, but he did want work that supported his growing family.

Before college became so widespread, these things called “apprenticeships” were the ticket to a good career. A teacher, or master craftsman, employed a younger person, or apprentice, as cheap labor. In turn, the apprentice was given food and lodging while learning the trade.

This relationship created a future generation of bakers, blacksmiths, tailors – jobs that kept the economy afloat. The U.S. Department of Labor currently counts over 500,000 apprentices in action nationwide, in-demand gigs saving the U.S.’s infrastructure.

But people aren’t taking these jobs anymore. One big reason is a general lack of awareness as to how the building trades work. If people do know about the trades, they peg them as dirty and backbreaking labor. Then, when someone is actually interested in becoming an apprentice, they don’t always have the skills to get into the program.

Dorsey Hager, the head of Columbus Building Trades, spreads the word about apprenticeships at high school career fairs. During one particular conversation, he explained the perks of apprenticeships to a father: over minimum wage pay, health benefits, free tuition, and eventual $125,000 journeyman wage.

Hager listened as the father relayed the benefits of the program to his wife. Her reply: “My baby's not digging ditches for the rest of his life.”

“This happens at every job fair and career fair that I’m at,” Hager says.

Being an apprentice in the building trades is hard work. It does mean you sometimes have to dig ditches.

Washington thought the same thing of the trades in high school. It wasn’t until a family friend, a pipefitter, encouraged him to consider an apprenticeship that he applied to the electric union. He got an interview and landed the job, leaving long nights on the open road behind him.

Washington felt prepared for every part of the new position, except for the college-level mathematics.

“I signed up to be an electrician, I didn't think they did any math," Washington says. "We sat down the first day and I heard, ‘Electricians do the most math in all the trades.’ Math kind of scared me for a little bit. I didn't pay attention in high school or anything."

The trades don’t just require brawn; brains are important, too. An electrical worker is expected to do college-level trigonometry and math. Part of an apprentice's day is spent in the class, and then directly applying that on the job.

Three years into his five-year program, it turns out Washington enjoys this type of learning.

“The most rewarding thing is the knowledge that I'm getting," he says. "That's something that no one will be able to take away from me and I’ll be able to take that anywhere in the world. I'm not paying anything, I'm not in thousands of dollars of debt for it. They're giving me their knowledge for eight hours a day and a little extra school.”

Washington is hopeful about his future - there’s potential to grow, learn, and move on in the building trades.

“In five years, I hope that I’m a journeyman electrician making the big bucks," he says. "I would love to help someone like myself who’s trying to figure it all out."

The industry certainly isn’t going anywhere. For the foreseeable future, somebody always needs to keep the lights on.

This story comes from the  Rivet podcast, which is part of  American Graduate.

Copyright 2019 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.