Sadly, you just don’t hear as much from young people these days about apprenticeships as you do internships. That’s not to say that one necessarily is better than the other. But it seems that while internships became a must-have experience for today’s college students hoping to land a job, apprenticeships waned into insignificance in the last century. As we saw in the recent post “The Current State of Apprenticeships,” however, there is an effort afoot to recreate a formal apprenticeship model in the United States to help close the skills gap that is having a great impact on many industries and to train workers for viable careers in the trades and other professions, including medicine and tech.
So, what exactly is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship? Both are types of on-the-job training that can lead—directly or indirectly—to a full-time job. But that’s about all they have in common. While internships are subject to state and federal labor laws, the scope of work and training is typically left to the employer offering the opportunity. Apprenticeship programs, on the other hand, are registered, certified, and endorsed by state and federal governments. For a better understanding, let’s take a look at the main differences between an internship and an apprenticeship.
Who is it for: Internships are generally designed for college students, though there are internships available for high-school students and internships are often also taken by college graduates who have yet to find full-time work. Internships are ideal for those looking for real-world experience related to their chosen area of study or to a specific career they hope to pursue. They can also be an opportunity for an undecided student to get a feel for a certain industry or a specific career before committing to a major of study or a full-time job.
Job description: There are internships available in many businesses but they mainly fall into two categories: general work-experience internships and research internships. In a work experience internship, students are most commonly assigned to a specific department within a business and may do anything from the proverbial “morning coffee run” to real entry level tasks such as market research or sales support. Research internships are mostly designed for undergraduate or graduate students nearing the end of their program. The students are hired to complete a specific research project with the supervision of managers at the company or institution offering the internship.
Duration: Internships are generally short-term. Most are planned to last the length of a college semester or the duration of a summer break. There are sometimes year-long internships however and there are internships offered abroad for students who are hoping to gain international or foreign language experience. Internships can be full-time, particularly summer internships, but more commonly they are part-time and are designed to fit or be flexible with a college student’s schedule.
Pay: Some interns are paid an hourly wage and some get a stipend that provides a lump-sum to complete the program, but most are not paid. When an intern is paid, they are considered an employee of the organization offering the program and therefore receive federal and state employee protections. When they are unpaid, they are not and do not. There is some controversy over unpaid internships which you can read more about here.
Classroom component: There is no classroom component to an internship, though at most colleges and universities an internship can fulfill a course requirement and the student can get credit for completing the program. While the experience may very well be worth the expense, unfortunately for unpaid interns, this amounts to paying to work since that college course will cost money.
Outcome: It is not unheard of for a student to land a job with the company they intern for if there is a position available and if they impress the hiring manager, it’s just not guaranteed. The most likely outcome is some experience and knowledge gained about a specific industry or line of work and a great resume booster. And of course, who you know helps. Even if an intern doesn’t get offered a job immediately, they may have made a good impression that will help them in the future, either someone to work for, or someone to offer a professional reference, which can be hard to come by for recent college grads.
Who is it for: Common in hands-on industries like construction, culinary arts, and telecommunications, apprenticeships are for anyone hoping learn the skills they need to enter into a specific career. An apprenticeship is perfect for someone who feels they would learn best while working side-by-side with an experienced professional. It is also a good path for those who would rather earn while they learn than pay for an education hoping to land a job later. Apprenticeships are complete training program in-an-of themselves. Due to the potentially full-time and long-term nature of apprenticeships, it is a good idea for apprentices to be fairly sure of their chosen career path.
Job description: Apprentices are training for a very specific skill set. Therefore, the job description often doesn’t look too different than that of the experienced professional they are training with. An apprentice electrician, for example, is often doing the same work on a day-to-day basis as a licensed electrician. The difference is that they have full-time supervision, someone to teach them new skills as the opportunity arises, someone to ask question about best practices, and they are not yet responsible for the completed work. They are closely supervised.
Duration: Compared to internships, apprenticeships are long term. Though some programs are as quick as one year, often they last longer and some even run up to six years in duration. Some apprenticeships are part-time, but it is more common for them to be full-time jobs.
Pay: By definition, apprenticeships are paid. In fact, the apprentice and the organization typically sign a contract that outlines pay and other benefits, the scope of the program, it’s duration, outcome, and more.
Classroom component: Many apprenticeship programs have a classroom component and testing. The classroom time may be offered by the state, or in coordination with a community college or trade organization. Sometimes study is self-directed. And, depending on the industry, and apprentice may have to pass written or skills tests to complete the program.
Outcome: In most cases, upon completion of the program, apprentices receive credentials, whether it be a license or certificate, and a full-time job from the organization offering the apprenticeship. In some industries, they may be invited to join a union or trade organization. Apprentices too, have now built a strong resume and have made connection that may be helpful their future.
The bottom line
Because the careers that generally offer apprenticeships are very specific, you will learn everything you need to do the job during the course of the program. While you may get a feel for what it is like to work at a specific company or in a certain type of department during an internship, and you may gain some valuable experience, you likely won’t master any of the skills needed for your career in that field.
While we can look at the details of the programs, it’s not possible to compare data to get at the success of those who participate in internships vs. those who participate in apprenticeships. Because apprenticeship programs are registered with federal and state agencies, we have statistics about them. For example, because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks internships, we know that there were over 533,607 apprentices in 22,000 programs in 2017 and that the same year over 60,000 apprentices completed their programs and earned credentials to continue working in their chosen profession.
Internships, on the other hand, are not such formal programs and therefore data is scarce. Though the quality of internships may vary, it seems safe to say that an internship looks good on a resume and many studies show that hiring managers prefer job candidates with internship experience and that college grades with internships are more likely to land jobs than those without some real-world experience.
As you can see, apprenticeships and internships are very different, and it’s not likely that anyone would ever face a decision between the two. The decision, more likely, is whether to pursue higher education, which may include an internship, or to pursue an apprenticeship. And choosing an education and career path depends on the individual and the type of career they are hoping to pursue. In the end, all on-the-job experience is time well spent for emerging professional.