Construction careers: Earning a degree vs. completing an apprenticeship
With the skilled labor shortage, it’s never been a better (or more lucrative) time to take up a trade. Many people exploring a career in construction now find themselves conflicted between earning a college degree or entering an apprenticeship. Engineers, architects, estimators, and project managers often require a four-year degree or beyond, but completing an apprenticeship program is a recognized achievement — one that can open the door to many possibilities and sometimes even a higher earning potential.
So how do you know whether to invest in a degree or enter directly into an apprenticeship program? Take this individual who posted on Reddit under the thread, “Dilemma with my future in construction.”
“I am currently going to Iowa State for construction engineering, but any possible careers that come from it (CMs, PMs, safety, designers, etc.) don’t seem to hold the same energy for me [as trade work]. Something tells me I’ll be bored with my current direction as opposed to actually doing the work. So I guess I’m asking for some advice given my thoughts above from both sides.”
Here is some of the top advice that was given, plus some crucial elements to consider when choosing the right path for you.
The top-voted comment in the thread was from u/moveshake, an assistant super for a general contractor.
“Something worth thinking about is how much stress you want in your life. Managing a job means you have a constant running to-do list in your head at all times.
The apprentices and journeymen on my job site never seem stressed out. There’s a sense that they’re there to do what their foreman told them to do and do it really well. If something unexpected comes up with my plumber, they’re thinking about how to handle the issue. I’m thinking about how to fix the plumbing issue, how this is going to push out my date for closing ceilings, if I can make this delay up by getting more carpenters, or will I need to pay my painter OT down the line and if so, is there anyone to back-charge so I don’t have to eat the cost?”
Because these roles involve more high-level responsibility than individual trades, it makes sense that the position would come with a significant amount of stress. This sentiment was echoed by u/wyonutrition, who works in construction management for a GC.
“If you cannot handle stress, then do not go into CM. It may not ALWAYS be stressful, but at times it will be, and if you can’t handle it or balance your life, you will fall on your face…every time.”
The physical toll of labor
While discussion participants agreed that construction management typically means higher stress levels, they also noted the physical toll onsite laborers must face. The hands-on work of an onsite laborer is often grueling and has a reputation for having a lasting impact on workers’ wellbeing. As u/moveshake noted,
“When I’ve spoken with the tradesmen on site, they point out that after 20 years, doing labor is really hard on your body. A lot of the guys love what they do, but at age 50, they’re starting to throw out their backs, and they are wondering if there are opportunities to do something lighter on their body. In contrast, I spend all day on my feet walking the job, but my body is never sore at the end of the day.”
However, many users argued that the physical toll of trade labor can actually be mitigated by good posture and other preventative measures. u/Prongu argued,
“Everyone older I know in labor is fitter and healthier than their white collar peers. Sure, they complain about the toll on their body, but posture and flexibility are bigger factors in how you’ll feel than ‘how much labor you do,’ if that makes sense.”
Something else to consider when choosing a path in construction is how much time you want to spend in an office versus on the job site. While earning a degree in a field like construction management will involve some level of onsite experience, a trade apprenticeship is all about gaining practical onsite experience. Similarly, the career options for someone who earns their degree will likely involve some (if not a significant amount of) office time.
For those who enjoy both, u/wjw21 recommended getting a degree but working for a subcontractor rather than a general contractor.
“In the subcontractor management world, you are closer to the work. In our trailer, you know you are on a construction site, which is what I think you are looking for. It is a more informal, playful atmosphere, but you still need to know when to be serious and get your work done.”
However, it’s important to remember both sides: while working for a subcontractor may get you closer to the field, general contractors often have a reputation for offering higher salaries and more opportunities for growth. This isn’t always the case, but carefully consider all of your options to find the best fit for your goals.
You aren’t confined to a single path
If you do choose to enter an apprenticeship and decide later that you’re interested in construction management, you aren’t stuck. As u/wyonutrition said,
“Here’s the thing — there are a decent number of laborers and carpenters who wind up as GCs down the road. If I were you, I’d finish school, join the trades, and see what happens next. With a degree under your belt, a good head on your shoulders, and good experience should you ever want to move to management, I’d expect it to be an easy transition.”
There’s no one educational route that’s right for everyone. Simply choose what feels best to you, and if you decide to change course down the road, you’ll be that much better for the experience you gained along the way.
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