If you're looking to make a career switch but need to stay employed, you can learn on the job through an apprenticeship program. Many apprentices are paid from the start, though at a lower rate than they'll earn once their training period is complete.
Probably the best-known careers entered through this route are electrician and plumber, but you can apprentice in a wide range of jobs, from accounts-payable clerk to wastewater treatment plant operator. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees hundreds of official, defined apprenticeship programs (http://www.doleta.gov/oa/), and a spokeswoman said the agency plans to add new apprenticeship programs for growing fields such as healthcare and "green jobs" involving energy efficiency or conservation.
Industries in each state decide whether they will participate in federal apprenticeship programs (state-by-state list here: http://www.doleta.gov/OA/sainformation.cfm), and in some cases states create their own apprenticeship programs. You'll need to do a little sleuthing to see what's available in your area. Generally, the Department of Labor reports entry requirements are minimal – must be 18 and a high school graduate, as well as physically able to do required tasks.
There are three advantages to participating in an official apprenticeship program, says Laurence Shatkin, co-author of 200 Best Jobs Through Apprenticeships (Jist Publishing 2009). With a formal program, you'll complete a training course of a required length, and potential employers will know you've demonstrated a specific skill level. The rules of the apprenticeship will protect you from being exploited on the job, as they define the wages you should be paid. And finally, you'll make valuable industry contacts.
"Often, you'll have worked at more than one job site, so people in the industry get to know you," he says. "When you're done, you can tap into your network for referrals."
The following list of careers you can get into through apprenticeship displays the great variety of choices available:
1. Fashion designer.
The competition is intense, but if you've got an eye for style you may be able to convince a pro to take you on. Once you've completed your apprenticeship, you can strike out on your own – about one-quarter of designers are self-employed, the DOL reports.
Average Salary: $61,100 per year
2. Industrial production manager.
If your area has a strong manufacturing base and you have some assembly-line experience, an apprenticeship could help you move up to a supervisory role, Shatkin says.
Average Salary: $66,900 per year
3. Air traffic controller.
If you live near an airport, this is a great career to enter now. A generation of controllers hired during the 1970s is nearing retirement, so future hiring prospects are bright.
Average Salary: $58,100 per year
4. Firefighting manager/supervisor.
This is a good option for those who've been first-responders of some kind in the past, even as volunteers, Shatkin says. No matter what happens with the economy, firehouses will still need someone to organize the crews.
Average Salary: $58,000 per year
5. Power plant operator.
There are power plants of all types, all across the country, including an increasing number of wind farms, Shatkin notes. The Department of Labor reports that most operators learn on the job.
Average Salary: $56,200 per year
6. Building code inspector.
Many in this role are employed by governments, which are required to inspect buildings to comply with a range of laws regarding structures.
Average Salary: $49,000 per year
7. Telecommunications equipment installer.
There's only one way to learn how to set up a wireless network or lay fiber-optic cable – follow somebody around who's doing it. Shatkin notes this career is expected to boom as the economy recovers.
Average Salary: $49,400 per year
8. Ship's mate.
Many get started in this career in the Navy, Shatkin says, but you can use an apprenticeship as an entry point as well. Mates, also sometimes called deck officers, direct routine vessel operations and coordinate crew activities.
Average Salary: $39,000 per year
Though most paralegals take a two-year college course, you can find apprenticeship opportunities, Shatkin says. The DOL forecasts rapid growth in demand for this role.
Average Salary: $48,700 per year
10. Funeral director.
Until someone discovers the fountain of youth, this job isn't going away. Some directors take college courses to become morticians as well, Shatkin notes, but you can learn to arrange funerals on the job.
Average Salary: $45,800 per year
Business reporter Carol Tice (www.caroltice.com
Source: All salary data is from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median, annual salaries for full-time workers with 5-8 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit sharing.