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OPINION: Why apprenticeship is becoming a wise choice for many

Kyle Schwarm is the marketing and communications director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

Kyle Schwarm

Many economists, employers and academics tell us that our post-secondary education system is churning out too many four-year graduates. For decades, many parents, teachers and school counselors have been stuck in the mindset that four-year colleges are the best pathway for high school graduates to initiate a successful career.

Many in our society think of this as the only wise choice, and students have often been made to feel “less-than” by their fellows, teachers and others, if they choose an apprenticeship in the skilled trades.

Parents, worried about the perceptions of others, feel a sense of humility if their sons and daughters choose a pathway other than college; as if they themselves could be perceived as failures. There’s a stigma attached to the skilled trades; a stereotype that those who go into the skilled trades are not college material, even though many apprentices have four-year degrees.

The good news is that market forces are beginning to change this perception. The large number of college graduates is giving rise to an oversupply of people who find that their degrees do not align very well with the jobs available in the economy. There is also huge demand for skilled professionals. This has resulted in the skills gap.

In their book “Other Ways to Win,” Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr call this the “One way to win mentality,” or the thought that good jobs require college degrees. Gray and Herr contend there are more losers from the pool of four-year college graduates than there are winners.

The latest numbers from show the highest average salary for new four-year college graduates in Wisconsin is roughly $65,000. Graduates of the Milwaukee School of Engineering take the honor, and Marquette University grads follow at $56,400 and UW-Platteville at $56,000. UW-Madison is next at $55,700 and UW-Eau Claire is fifth highest at $51,100.

Unfortunately, salaries are not the only variable to consider with this investment. Student tuition at MSOE and Marquette is roughly $38,000 a year. Add in student-living costs of $12,000 to $15,000, and your annual bill comes to between $50,000 and $53,000. The annual bill at UW-Platteville is a more modest $19,000; UW-Madison is roughly $25,000; and UW-Eau Claire is nearly $20,000. Some students receive scholarships and grants, of course, but the average student-loan debt for a 2017-18 graduate in Wisconsin was nearly $32,000. According to, a 15-year payment plan at a conservative 4.5% interest rate results in a monthly payment of $245 for 15 years and more than $12,000 in interest. The financial gain is certainly not what it once was.

Many parents and students, meanwhile, are surprised to hear that the median starting salary for graduating apprentices in Wisconsin is more than $77,000 and that several construction trades are even higher, according to the Wisconsin Technical College System 2016-17 Apprenticeship Completion Report. Tuition in the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin Apprenticeship program is about $2,000 a year, which pays for books and administrative fees. If you consider most apprentices don’t have to move for school, the entire program has a low-price tag of $6,000 to $10,000.

Also consider that, unlike four-year college students, apprentices are paid while they’re in school and progressively earn more each year of their three- to five-year programs. Apprentices graduate with essentially no instruction-related debt and are often able to secure home ownership and build cash reserves while in school. Many apprentices also progress into management positions and even start their own companies.

Certainly, it’s not all about the money, but career passion and payback should be considered to avoid the one-pathway mentality. Securing a college degree without a mountain of debt is becoming impossible for many. As more parents and students begin to question the wisdom of the college investment and look more openly at alternatives like apprenticeship, they can be confident they are making a wise choice.

Kyle Schwarm is Marketing and Communications Director at Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin

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