Doing an apprenticeship is a great way of gaining real-life work experience and getting a feel of what it’s like to actually work in the industry. It is also one of the ways to have the career you desire without going to university.
If you are sitting on the fence about whether to complete an apprenticeship or not, the following short guide will hopefully give you a feel of what you can expect from an engineering apprenticeship. You'll also find some handy hints if you want to take advantage of one in the near future.
What is an engineering apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship, like one in engineering, is a training program that is usually based on learning the skills required for a particular career while on the job. Usually a paid position, apprentices are mentored by practicing professionals, and apprentices are usually awarded a university degree or another kind of nationally recognized qualification on completion of the apprenticeship.
You can usually join an engineering apprenticeship with or without existing formal qualifications, but most commonly take apprenticeships after college. That being said, apprenticeships tend to be aimed at school leavers or career changers and are offered as a viable and attractive alternative to university study, especially for those who already have a degree.
Apprentice engineering positions are normally available to prospective and existing employees in a company. Under some circumstances, apprenticeships can attract funding to support the costs of training apprentices too.
Engineering apprenticeships will normally have some minimum requirements prior to being considered for the position, ranging from a minimum age (usually at least 16) and may have a requirement for some formal qualifications, e.g. GCSE/A-levels in STEM subjects (UK) or a high school diploma or GED (USA).
Manual dexterity, interest in the field, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work as part of a team are usually also beneficial.
Apprenticeships vary in duration but usually run for between one and four or more years, depending on the program.
Generally speaking, an engineering apprenticeship will involve working at least 30 hours a week, while also studying, and will consist of building knowledge and competence in a given engineering discipline.
As previously mentioned, engineer apprentices will usually work alongside experienced engineers through a process called shadowing. Mentoring engineers will talk apprentices through the different aspects of the job and impart their experience in the profession, be it electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or another discipline.
Engineer apprentice roles and responsibilities will usually grow within the company as their personal skills and competencies manifest themselves. Eventually, apprentices will begin to perform some engineering roles on their own and will take responsibility for their own work during engineering programs.
At all times, however, engineer apprentices will be able to ask for advice and guidance from seasoned professionals. In this sense, you can consider apprenticeships as a kind of shortcut to competence in a particular profession.
For engineer apprentices, practical work skills are usually built simultaneously with classroom-based learning of the theory behind a particular field too. Depending on the apprenticeship, this may be conducted in-house within the company, or at a local college or university.
Study time may take place during the workweek, or over defined blocks of time of one or two weeks at a time.
Throughout an apprenticeship, the apprentice will normally have regular meetings with a designated mentor or supervisor to monitor their progress and work out any issues or gaps in their knowledge. This will also often involve assessments of some kind to test their knowledge.
This may take the form of a formal written exam, coursework, essays, or practical exams.
Payment for apprenticeships will vary, but engineering apprentices can usually expect to receive anywhere from the minimum wage to several times more than that.
However, payment will also normally rise as an apprentice's skills, knowledge, and responsibilities increase over time.
Why would you want an engineering apprenticeship?
One of the main reasons to undertake an engineering apprenticeship is the ability to learn on the job and be paid for the privilege. This will mean that you will build all the skills and knowledge necessary to become a competent engineer, as well as the theoretical knowledge, without racking up large amounts of debt from studying for a university degree.
This is an important consideration, especially as university fees are expected to rise sharply in the near future. Saddling yourself with large amounts of debt at a young age should only be considered after some serious thought.
However, it is important to note that apprenticeships and university degrees are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is not uncommon for apprentices to complete a formal degree as part of an apprenticeship program. Often, existing employers will also help fund, and support, further study -- but this will depend on the employer.
Despite this, most budding engineers may be apprehensive of undertaking an apprenticeship, as they may not know exactly what is involved. While every single engineering apprenticeship will tend to be tailored to the business you will be working for, they do generally have many overlaps, as we discussed in the previous section.
The main benefit of an apprenticeship is the ability to gain hands-on experience in a particular engineering position, rather than just sitting in a classroom or lecture hall. They are also great ways to gain work experience in a particular aspect of engineering, or sector, that interests you from the start.
Another benefit of an apprenticeship is the fact that when the apprenticeship ends and you become qualified, you already have an employment position within an engineering company. This is a very real "foot in the door", and some find it less risky than getting a degree and then trying for a job.
This also gives apprentices a very real advantage in the job market when they decide to apply for a new position or move up to a larger, or more prominent engineering company. Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to complete your apprenticeship with a large multi-national engineering firm.
For those who like engineering, but are not sure about a particular specialization, a degree may be the better option.
Tips for getting an engineering apprenticeship
If we've whetted your appetite for looking into undertaking an engineering apprenticeship, here are some handy tips to consider before taking the plunge.
1. Research is crucial! Read about all the different areas of engineering you can potentially work in, which companies take more interns in, what skills are necessary, etc.
2. Choose an area you are most interested in (or few if you can’t decide), whether that would be mechanical engineering, civil, aerospace, or any other, and look for work opportunities there.
3. Use a variety of resources to search for apprenticeships – some companies prefer advertising vacancies through a third-party agency (similar to job agencies). Also consider national training organizations. Again, similar to agencies, these are used by employers to advertise jobs.
4. Look for jobs in newspapers, both online and offline. Some employers prefer doing it the old way and put vacancies in the actual paper.
5. If you have a company in mind that you would love to work for, go straight to their website and look for vacancies there. Even if there are none, you can still send your CV via email and ask if there are any positions/opportunities available.
6. Even if you’d rather be working than studying right now, consider applying for a short (maybe one-year-long) course at your local college. Having the necessary skills and education will make you look more appealing to employers than the other applicants. Engineering is a competitive industry, so you have to stand out.
7. Build up your network of connections! Ask your family members, friends, and teachers at school if any of them know about apprenticeship opportunities. If you are not using LinkedIn yet, it is time to sign up and use it as an additional tool for searching for vacancies.
8. Find out which jobs/areas are lacking skilled workers and interns and apply there as well. Even if you are more interested in another area of engineering, it would still be a good experience and you will have a higher chance of getting the job. You might also love your apprenticeship so much that you wouldn’t want to switch to a different area in the future!
9. Attend all career fairs, workshops, lectures, and talks you can find – they will be helpful in building your set of skills, getting new connections, and understanding what having an apprenticeship really means.
10. In the end, choose a few apprenticeships that would suit you best and spend some quality time writing cover letters and getting ready for interviews. Ask for help and practice with job advisors at school as well!
And that, budding engineers, is your lot for today. Now get out there and put these hints and tips into practice. Good luck!