No Four-Year Degree? An Apprenticeship Could Be Your Ticket to a New Career

A young man stands by a bulletin board in an office with a view of a city.
Shawn Farrow accepted an offer to become a software engineer apprentice with Avvo, an online legal marketing service. Photo courtesy of Avvo

Shawn Farrow was working for a moving company when he caught a tantalizing glimpse of his future.

“Being in Seattle, we moved a lot of the tech workforce,” Farrow says. “I was seeing how these people were living, and I was like, ‘This is what I want.’”

But Farrow, 32, who has an associate’s degree, couldn’t find work in the high-tech industry and struggled to cover the costs of a pricy coding bootcamp while making $20 an hour in his job as a mover .

The director of the bootcamp advised Farrow to check out Apprenti, a tech apprenticeship program that would pay for the rest of his coursework.

Farrow took the online tests and went through multiple interviews before receiving an offer to become a software engineer apprentice with Avvo, an online legal marketing service. He accepted the offer immediately.

“I had no hesitations,” Farrow says. “I was at a point in my life where I was like, something needs to change.”

Avvo paid Farrow 60% of the market-value salary during his year-long apprenticeship — meaning he earned roughly $45,000 plus benefits.

And before Farrow even completed his apprenticeship, Avvo offered him a full-time position with an annual salary of more than $75,000 — double what he earned as a mover.

I feel like I got one of the biggest breaks ever by being chosen in this program,” Farrow says.

If you’re wondering whether an apprenticeship could be the path to your dream career, we have what you need to know about earn-and-learn programs — and where to find one near you.

Evolution of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeship programs, as defined by the Department of Labor, require participants to earn wages from an employer as they train. Throughout the program, which can last one to six years, participants must work under the guidance of another employee and must earn an industry-recognized credential.

In the United States, the building trades, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, have historically used the apprenticeship model.

As a result, apprenticeships have been unfairly stereotyped as a lesser training program for people without degrees, according to Eric Seleznow, senior advisor for Jobs For The Future Center for Apprenticeship & Work Based Learning.

“There are a lot of myths and misperceptions about apprenticeships — that it’s a second-rate pathway, that it’s only for non-college people, it’s only in the building trades — and that’s not the case,” says Seleznow, who notes that Europe has a long history of using apprenticeships as tracks to highly skilled jobs. “It is just an alternative pathway.”

But as the model evolves in the United States, apprenticeships offer an entrance into fields that participants may have previously considered beyond their reach, according to Tricia Berry, the director of the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

“From a standpoint of making STEM fields accessible, it brings in so many positives, such as role models,” Berry says. “Or for adults that are looking to change careers — it gives them those connections to others who have worked in this space.”

Because an apprenticeship is a skills-based learning program, the model can expand to other industries, too.

“It can be applied to IT and is being applied in healthcare… almost any occupation that requires some level of education, training, skill and certification,” Seleznow says. “It’s mostly to try to get people to middle skill positions or even higher.”

Alternative to College — or a First Step

The number of apprenticeships grew by 42% from 2013 to 2017 — more than 533,000 people participated last year — according to the Department of Labor.

In a tight labor market, industries that previously required a four-year degree have to find alternatives or face talent shortages, says Jennifer Carlson, executive director and cofounder of Apprenti.

“At the end of 2017, according to CompTIA research, there were 2.8 million job vacancies in the tech sector,” Carlson says. “If you look at the fact that we’re conferring four-year college degrees in computer science and related degrees on fewer than 60,000 people a year, that’s a massive gap, and it’s only going to accelerate.”

And unlike college, apprenticeships pay you to learn instead of the other way around.

Farrow says his biggest financial hurdle was completing the unpaid training at the coding bootcamp before he started his apprenticeship. He supported himself by continuing to work at his moving job on the weekends.

By starting out with an apprenticeship program, participants can decide if the field is right for them and can even help them decide if they want to continue to pursue a degree.

“The companies might even pay for it down the road,” Berry says.

Apprentice vs. Intern

Although apprenticeships may sound similar to internships — working while learning at a company — there are definite distinctions, according to Carlson.

She points out that internships can vary greatly but are often geared toward college students gaining work experience, while an apprenticeship is for a job that is currently vacant.

An internship is try before you buy, and an apprenticeship is train to retain,” Carlson says. “The ultimate end goal for the company in the case of an apprenticeship is: I’ve taken the time, I’ve invested in this person, I’ve gotten them to the level of proficiency I need and now I want to retain this person in this job.”

Farrow says he witnessed the difference when he was an apprentice and Avvo brought on summer interns.

“The time there [for interns] was so short — like 10 weeks or something — that they couldn’t quite all the way be thrown into the team,” Farrow says. “They were treated as team members but were more or less given a side project… whereas as an apprentice, I’m grabbing tickets to change the website.”

How to Become an Apprentice

The most successful apprenticeship candidates are those who excel at hands-on learning, according to Seleznow, who advises students to shop for an apprentice program the same way they would research a college.

“Sometimes an entry point is through community colleges… which are typically in partnership with business,” Seleznow says. “Or you could go to a local workforce development board, of which there are 2,500 across the country.”

The Apprenti program is currently available in six states — Washington, Michigan, Oregon, Virginia, California and Tennessee — and Carlson says that the program is expanding to Louisiana, Ohio, Massachusetts and Arizona. Applicants can begin the process by taking free assessment tests on the site.

On a national level, the Department of Labor is launching an apprenticeship website in fall 2018 that will allow job seekers to search for apprenticeships by geographic area as well as skill set.

Breaking Stereotypes

Farrow admits he experienced “imposter syndrome” initially at Avvo because it was his first office job. He didn’t feel like his education levels matched that of some of his coworkers.

But he says his team helped him realize he didn’t have to fit a stereotype to make it in his new role.

Coming from moving and a low-income neighborhood, I don’t fit the exact mold of the programmer,” says Farrow. “But my team looked at me as a junior developer before I was one, so they treated me as one.

“More people can do this job than the stereotype of the math geniuses. Sure, those people are here, but there are also a plethora of other people here doing this job.”

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer for The Penny Hoarder who covers interesting ways to make money. Data journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this story.