Wealth Management

Apprenticeship programs are becoming more popular as an alternative to college

Daniel Swan, 26, started as an apprentice and now works full time as an HVAC technician in California.
Courtesy: Lee’s Air

For Daniel Swan, a 26-year-old father of two, it was simply a means to a well-paying job during an uncertain time.

Armed with a technical degree, Swan joined an apprenticeship program with Lee’s Air in Fresno, California, in 2019. His family fully supported the decision to forgo college. “It was more ‘be successful at whatever you do,’” Swan said of his parents’ attitude at the time.

Now, he works as a skilled technician in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC. Although Swan still hopes to get a degree in architecture one day, “I’m in a good place,” he said.

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Increasingly, young adults are rethinking the value of college.  

Amid the heightened demand for workers, rising cost of tuition and growing student loan burden, more would-be students are choosing career-connected pathways over four-year colleges, according to recent reports.

As enrollment falls, alternatives such as apprenticeship programs are quietly gaining steam, particularly for families anticipating the sticker shock of a college education, which currently averages around $53,430, including tuition, fees and room and board, at private colleges and $40,550 at public colleges for the 2022-23 school year, according to the College Board.

‘We are a societal turning point’

“We are a societal turning point,” said Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching in New York. “People at the margin are saying ‘I don’t know if I can wait four years to make a living.’”

Some experts say the value of a bachelor’s degree is fading and more emphasis should be directed toward career training. A growing number of companies, including many in tech, are also dropping degree requirements for many middle-skill and even higher-skill roles.

However, earning a degree is almost always worthwhile, according to “The College Payoff,” a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Companies that have these programs have a huge advantage because we can create the labor.
Tom Howard
owner of Lee’s Air

Bachelor’s degree holders generally earn 84% more than those with just a high school diploma, the report said — and the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.

Apprenticeships are on the rise

In an apprenticeship program, a company generally trains a student in one skill for a specific field. That often leads to a job, sidestepping the traditional college path — and costs.

Over a decade, the number of registered apprentices rose 64%, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor. 

For Tom Howard, the owner of Lee’s Air, the program was meant to address a growing labor shortage. “The reality is, as air conditioning and plumbing companies, we are desperate for labor,” Howard said. “It’s a massive problem.”

Lee’s Air covers the cost of training and supplies and matches apprentices with full-time jobs at the company. Once workers complete the program, “we have a pretty high retention rate,” he said.

Now apprenticeships are becoming more mainstream across the industry, Howard added. “Companies that have these programs have a huge advantage because we can create the labor.”

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