Apprentice vs. Laborer: What’s the Difference?

Looking for a job in construction? Knowing the difference between a laborer and an apprentice can help you make the choice that's right for you.

The trades are a lucrative job option for people wishing to start a career without attending a four-year college. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster than average employment growth for the construction industry through 2026.

With good employment opportunities and attractive starting wages, trades are becoming an increasingly popular option. If you’re interested in pursuing the trades, you should know the difference between a rookie laborer and an apprentice. Crucial differences between the two can determine the best path for you, based on your career goals.

What Is a Construction Trade Apprentice?

A construction trade apprentice learns a trade from experts in the trade, known as journeymen. Chris O’Halloran started as an apprentice carpenter and now runs Joyne, a construction tech company. “An apprenticeship involves learning both on-the-job skills and theoretical material, usually taught through a technical college,” he says.

An apprenticeship can last from two to six years, depending on the trade. Once someone completes their apprenticeship, they can apply to become a journeyman, which means they can work independently without supervision. To reach journeyman status, an apprentice must pass a written test and an on-the-job, hands-on exam.

What Is a Rookie Laborer?

A rookie laborer does a lot of the often-demanding preparation work for a construction job. They help ready a construction site by carrying and removing materials, move construction equipment around and clean up. There are also opportunities for rookie laborers to advance. You can become a supervisor of other laborers, and some companies offer additional training for a higher management position or other skilled work.

How Do the Two Career Paths Differ?

In simple terms, a trade apprentice is working toward a career in a trade, and a rookie laborer is just working a construction job.

A rookie laborer tends to work the usual number full-time employment hours, while an apprentice has a specific set of hours they need to work as part of their apprenticeship requirements. This involves time on the jobsite and in the classroom. An apprentice becomes certified to do a specific job; a rookie laborer doesn’t need any special certifications.

One advantage a rookie laborer has over an apprentice: More freedom to leave an employer and start with a new one. An apprentice usually signs an apprenticeship contract sponsored by a union or a specific employer. This contract contains certain requirements or obligations an apprentice must fulfill.

What Is the Difference in Pay?

While this varies by industry and location, a rookie laborer might earn more than an apprentice for the first year or two, O’Halloran notes. An apprentice is a student that is learning on the job, while a rookie laborer is a full-time independent worker.

Once an apprentice becomes a journeyman, they can earn significantly more than a laborer. Also, a journeyman can start their own business, which can be more lucrative than full-time employment.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median pay for a construction laborer is $36,000 per year. On the other hand, for a skilled tradesman, like a carpenter, the median pay is $48,330 per year. The median pay for an ironworker is $53,650 per year. The difference in pay can be tens of thousands of dollars, and wages continue to increase with experience.

What About Union Affiliation?

The union affiliation for rookie laborers and apprentices depends on where you live and work. A rookie laborer usually doesn’t need to meet any requirements to join a union. For an apprentice, however, depending on their apprenticeship contract, the rules can vary.

Some apprentices can join a union as soon as they begin their apprenticeship. Most of the time, if a union sponsors an apprenticeship, that apprentice belongs to the union the day they start. In some cases, an apprentice can only join a union once they become a journeyman.

Mark Soto
Mark Soto works for a family-owned company, RoofingMKE, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has comprehensive knowledge of roof installation, repair and replacement and gutter installation. Mark comes from a family of DIYers and has worked with landscapers, plumbers, painters, and damage restoration specialists.