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How to start a career: company job, union apprenticeship, or technical school?

What is the best first step on this trades and manufacturing career path? Start directly with a job or company apprenticeship? Join a union and begin their apprenticeship program? Enroll at a technical school or workforce development program? As you might guess, answers for specific career paths within this broad industry vary considerably so details found elsewhere in the Trades Hub will be helpful. We offer some high-level thoughts below, and then follow with more comments about each of these three potential first steps.

Opening Thoughts

As a general rule, for any career you are pursuing – trades and manufacturing or otherwise – you would be very smart to think about ways in which you can invest in yourself to build up valuable, transferrable, and marketable skills. This investment can take the form of going directly to a technical school or workforce development program, joining a union apprenticeship program, or pursuing educational and training opportunities offered by your company employer. Starting your career with the discipline of investing in yourself is an exceptional life-long practice that should provide you with very large benefits throughout your career. You should also consider each job you hold to be part of your career, rather than simply a job. While it may seem like a subtle distinction, having the mindset of pursuing a career is vastly different at many levels from finding a job.

One of most things to consider when you're making an investment in yourself is the cost compared to the value received. Within the trades and manufacturing field, vocational school is the most expensive first step at a full-price level, but many scholarships exist to offset some or all of the upfront cost. In addition, many workforce development programs provide solid training for no or very little cost to you. A job at a company may appear to be the first step with the lowest potential for skill development because no formal apprenticeship program exists, but there may be exceptional on-the-job training and mentorship opportunities, in addition to company-paid vocational schooling in the future, to accelerate your capabilities and career. We offer these comments only to encourage you to dig deeper than surface level when considering each opportunity. Once you have found a specific path of interest, explore self-investment options to better understand how to develop your skills and best advance your career.

Finally, it is important to understand that an initial decision can be modified at a later date, with valuable experience and credits applied to the new path. For instance, most apprenticeship programs offer credit against their standard four to five-year term in exchange for an associates degree in the specific apprenticeship trade. Similarly, prior construction work experience, for instance, will be invaluable when taken to the classroom in pursuit of a construction management associates degree.

Company Job/Apprenticeship

Securing a job at a company is the fastest way to begin earning money and enter the workforce. You become more or less dependent on the company for training and development, however, which is neither an inherently good or bad thing; it just needs to be understood. Researching opportunities for advancement and skill development while an employee is an important step to take prior to accepting a job. Ask the company for examples of entry-level hires who have advanced to increasing levels of responsibility within the firm, and be sure to understand all tuition-reimbursement programs. You may ultimately decide that training and development opportunities are limited at the company, and that furthering your career requires going to technical school or college, or perhaps finding another employer. (Some of the day-in-the-life videos in the Trades Hub feature workers at local companies who have advanced several levels despite being employed for a relatively short time.)

If the company you are considering offers an apprenticeship program, make sure that the program is licensed in the state through the Department of Labor and Industry. Please also see Apprenticeship: What is it? to understand issues around apprenticeships and certain questions to ask.

Union Apprenticeship

Similar to the company job step, a union apprenticeship offers an immediate income stream with very little educational expenses for tuition. As an apprentice you do, however, commit to a multi-year program of learning a variety of skills under master tradespeople and through classroom work.

Union apprenticeship programs are generally regarded to offer exceptional training in a particular skill or career specialty. Joining a union and committing to a four- to five-year apprenticeship program is understood to be a structured, proven, and financially-rewarding career pathway. In many local trades, however, the waitlist for apprenticeships is long, so deciding with certainty that a particular union apprenticeship route is the best career choice needs to be checked against the likelihood of actually being accepted into the program. There also tends to be a permanence to the union-joining decision, so make sure to understand all of the benefits and commitments of each union under consideration because it may be a career-long choice. (Please also see the Union Versus Non-Union? article for more information about unions.)

Some of the videos within the Careers portion of this website feature union workers in a variety of career specialties. You might learn something about their particular path that would help your decision-making process.

Technical Schools

Technical schools and workforce development programs offer education specifically targeted to developing a workplace skill, such as welding, robotics, carpentry, or CNC machining. Technical schools generally offer a one-year certificate degree or a two-year associates degree. Certain schools (such as Dunwoody College of Technology) also offer a four-year bachelor’s degree. Most workforce development programs offer certification. (Please read What Types of Technical Awards are Available? for more information.)

Before grants and other aid, total annual costs for technical school certificate and associate degree programs range from $2,500 to $25,000, depending on the school. The increasingly favorable value-proposition which technical schools offer to students has led to large increases in both state and private funding for scholarships to attend these schools, particularly in recent years. As a result, the net cost to attend vocational schools has dropped considerably. In addition, most workforce development programs cost either nothing or very little for the student. (Please see the Career Training board for information on training programs, the Scholarship board for available scholarships, and this article for more information about scholarships and grants.)

Technical schools and workforce development programs offer employers a centralized place to recruit students skilled in particular trades, with many employers offering the opportunity to begin work during the first year of a student’s degree program and then providing tuition reimbursement for the employee post-graduation. (Please see the Job Board within this website for more information. Typing "tuition reimbursement" in the right search bar will provide a list of positions posted by companies who offer some type of tuition reimbursement. For one particularly unique opportunity, type "Wallin" in the search bar to discover Wallin Scholar positions through which you may receive a scholarship to technical school while you are working part-time at a leading company. Please also refer to the article, What is a Wallin Scholar? for more information.) Other technical school benefits to compare against tuition and other school expenses include:

  • Career development officers and pathway counselors
  • Network building opportunities among classmates, faculty, and industry partners
  • Soft-skills development through classroom work and seminars
  • Support services for life challenges which may arise early in one’s career, including mental health issues and financial stresses.
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