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The Fastest Routes to a Skilled Trade Job

Posted on
September 24th, 2020
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two men working on a wood project.
Through an apprenticeship, you learn a trade while earning a paycheck. (Credit: goodluz/Shutterstock)
Through an apprenticeship, you learn a trade while earning a paycheck. (Credit: goodluz/Shutterstock)
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By Daniel Bortz

Need a good job, fast? America’s skilled labor shortage means plenty of companies have skilled trade jobs sitting empty, even now. And it’s possible to get some of those jobs with less than a year of training or education. In some cases, companies will even train you on the job.

“One of the things that scares people away from a lot of jobs is the amount of education they need to have, but skilled trade jobs allow you to get trained quickly — from a six-week certificate to a two-year associate degree and everything in between,” says Laurie Grove, director of career services at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a two-year technical school in Pennsylvania. “And the beauty behind a skilled trade is there’s almost a guarantee of a great job on the other end if you’re willing to put in a little time, given all of the demand.”

Long Story Short
•   Training programs as short as three weeks can lead to an entry-level job.
•   Paid apprenticeships provide both on-the-job training and formal instruction.
•   Some jobs require only a high school diploma plus on-the-job training.

The construction industry is experiencing one of the biggest worker shortages. In a survey released in May, more than four out of five home builders (85%) said they were facing serious labor challenges. Another industry seriously short on talent is manufacturing. Both industries have more than 300,000 job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

So how do you get a skilled trade job? Often, there’s more than one route. Whether you’re just entering the job market or you’re looking to change careers, the fastest paths include training and/or certification programs, apprenticeships and on-the-job training (OJT). 

Training and Certification Programs

Can’t spend two years getting an associate degree? No worries. Training programs at community colleges and trade schools will set you up to land an entry-level job in various skills-based careers, from auto mechanic to electric lineman to machinist

The shortest programs are short. At Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, for example, programs include Metalcasting Technology (three weeks), Production Welder (six weeks) and Facilities Maintenance Technician (12 weeks). 

You can get trained in less than six months (not counting on-the-job training) for these high-paying, in-demand occupations: 

Electrician
•    Average salary: $56,180
•    Projected job growth: 10% from 2018 to 2028
•    Training program example: Ashworth College Electrician Training Course (four-plus months)

Carpenter
•    Average salary: $48,330
•    Projected job growth: 8% from 2018 to 2028
•    Training program example: Penn Foster Career School Carpentry Training Program (five-plus months, online) 

Truck driver
•    Average salary: $45,260
•    Projected job growth: 5% from 2018 to 2028
•    Training program example: Knight Transportation’s CDL program (six weeks) 

If you’re currently employed, it’s worth asking your employer whether tuition reimbursement is available. 

Some training programs lead you toward a certification or license, which a state or employer may require for certain jobs. One thing to keep in mind: “Companies may pay for you to get industry certifications,” Grove says. So if you have your eye on an expensive certification course, it might make sense to wait until you have a job with an employer who will cover the cost. Also, if you have a certain type of job in mind, talk to professionals in the field to see what certifications they recommend, Grove advises. 

Outside of community colleges and traditional trade schools, fast-track training programs are cropping up to serve highly specific workforce needs that many school programs don’t address. A case in point: American Diesel Training Centers offer a three-month training course for entry-level diesel technicians, and according to the website, it has a 100% placement rate for students with perfect attendance. Best of all, students don’t pay for the training until they get a job.

Apprenticeships 

Need to earn while you learn? An apprenticeship is paid work that combines on-the-job training at a company with classroom or online instruction. An apprentice “graduates” with industry-recognized credentials that can help them land a job, often at the same company. According to Apprenticeship.gov, 94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship get a job, and the average annual salary is impressive: $70,000.

According to Apprenticeship.gov, 94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship get a job, and the average annual salary is impressive: $70,000.

Apprenticeships are typically sponsored by a company, industry association or community college. The classroom instruction may be provided by a college, apprenticeship training school or the company itself, says Tempy Albright, skills training manager at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina, which offers free career and job-search advice to skilled trade workers. 

“In some cases you don’t even have to be a student to enroll in an apprenticeship that’s sponsored by a community college,” Albright says. 

Want to become an auto mechanic? There are apprenticeships for that (for example, the UAW-Ford Joint Apprentice Program). Ditto HVAC technician (Lennox International) and shipbuilder (Ingalls Apprentice School). Apprenticeships can last up to six years for the highest-skilled trades, though many are shorter (home health aide and emergency medical technician apprenticeships are one or two years). The average starting wage is $15 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Typically, wages increase over time as apprentices gain knowledge and skills. 

There are many ways to find a quality apprenticeship program. A good starting point is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship Finder. If you’re graduating from high school, Grove suggests checking with your career counselor to learn about apprenticeships in your area.  

Pre-Apprenticeships 

Pre-apprenticeships prepare people for an apprenticeship or even an entry-level job. For example, Home Builders Institute (HBI) offers pre-apprenticeship certificate training (PACT) for high school and post-secondary school students, veterans, transitioning military members and unemployed workers. HBI has about 10,000 graduates a year, many of whom go onto paid apprenticeship programs, says Greg Zick, assistant vice president of workforce development for the National Association of Home Builders. Students can become certified in basic carpentry, basic construction technology, electrical wiring and more. 

On-the-Job Training

Training happens on the job for many skilled trades. In fact, for some skills-based jobs, such as mold remediation technician, construction helper, butcher and even power plant operator, OJT and a high-school diploma may be all you need. 

Goodwill’s Albright says there’s no shortage of companies that offer excellent on-the-job training. After all, she notes, “Skilled trade employers are all about getting people into the workforce as quickly as possible.”

Job fairs, either virtual or in person, are a great way to find jobs that offer OJT. (One place to check for upcoming job fairs in your area is the Goodwill Career Center.) If you’re in high school or community college, ask your counselor or advisor about companies in your area that have training or technical development programs. 

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Consumer Reports, Entrepreneur magazine, Money magazine, and Kiplinger's, among others.