How to Become a Carpenter

Carpenters are in demand. If you're interested in a career in the trades, here's what you need to know about how to become a carpenter.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS), carpentry is one of the most in-demand jobs in all the trades. The USBLS predicts that more than 50,000 new carpentry jobs will open up between 2018 and 2028.

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Why so much need? The housing bust/financial crisis of 2008 caused many construction tradespeople to retrain into other careers. And with construction work stagnant, young people entering the workforce generally looked for opportunities in other fields. Those circumstances set the table for a serious shortage of skilled labor in the construction trades, opening up the opportunities that now exist.

What Do Carpenters Do?

Carpenters typically work with wood-based materials in the construction of homes and commercial property. They frame interiors, set windows and specialize in finish work,  as well as work in cabinet shops. Carpenters can also become qualified to do related work such as roofing and insulation.

Physical demands of carpentry include heavy lifting, reaching, climbing ladders and scaffolding, use of power tools and equipment, and frequent kneeling and bending. Workers are often exposed to the elements on the jobsite.

Average Wages for Carpenters

USBLS lists the median income for U.S. carpenters in 2018 as $46,590, although highly-skilled, experienced carpenters can command much more. Data provided by Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) suggests that the typical starting wage for a carpenter who just completed training is $18 to $21 per hour.

Necessary Carpenter Qualifications

Minimum qualifications for becoming a carpenter include a high school or equivalency diploma. Many employers prefer a candidate with a driver’s license. To enter accelerated training programs, candidates will likely need to demonstrate basic proficiency in math and communication through an aptitude test. And accumulating some related work experience shows employers that the candidate has genuine interest and motivation to succeed.

Although it’s possible to get in the door with no training or experience and work your way up, there are some drawbacks to that route, according to Deb Kutrieb, associate dean at WITC, who oversees the school’s curriculum for technology and industry. Those with no training or experience typically begin at a lower wage scale. Someone could also be stuck on a particular task and not develop the well-rounded base of knowledge and experience needed to transition to a managerial position or start their own company. Carpentry is tough, physical work that many people can’t do after several decades.

Education and Training

Several paths exist for those pursuing formal training. Some high schools offer vocational/shop classes. Kutrieb said high school students can get an early start in a program like WITC’s Construction Academy. While the practical experience gained does not count toward required work experience in post-secondary training programs, the coursework counts toward high school graduation requirements and a certificate or associate degree at the accredited institution.

Attending a Technical School

Typical programs involve a two-year program where students learn skills such as reading blueprints, preparing estimates and ordering materials. They also develop foundational knowledge of common building code and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.

While it may also include some hands-on experience, like a house-building project, these programs generally do not include much jobsite experience. Attending a trade school takes less time than working through an apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship represents a second training pathway. Working for a company under the watchful eye of a master tradesperson, apprentices invest four to five years in intense training. Acceptance requires a verified employer as a sponsor, a qualifying aptitude test score (sometimes a benchmark score on the ACT is accepted) and approval from a committee of master tradespeople through an interview.

Besides working the same schedule as the regular crew, apprentices take classes one or two evenings a week paid for by their employer to develop the knowledge and experience required to pass a certification exam and become a journeyman carpenter. Apprentices typically sign a contract of indenture that outlines their program. Wages increase each year on the apprentice’s anniversary date, gradually approaching the state’s mandated standard.

The advantages of an apprenticeship program include no out-of-pocket expenses for the education and steady income while training. The candidates pay only for their licensure exams. The drawback is that it takes longer to complete the program.

A Hybrid Approach

A program that combines school and apprenticeship does exist. In this case the program lasts three years with apprentices working full-time on a crew under the supervision of a master carpenter, while attending one full day of classes every two weeks. Again, this approach requires the cooperation of an employer.

Career Advancement

Journeyman carpenters continue accruing documented experience and coursework toward master carpenter status, which enhances their earning potential. In some places it allows them to hold supervisory responsibilities. Some states do not require a contracting company to be owned by a master tradesperson, but in that case a master tradesperson is usually required to be on staff.

Which Path to Choose?

The approach you take depends on your personal preference. Trade school is a shorter time commitment and provides a higher initial wage. However, students must pay for their education. Apprentices endure a longer time commitment but pay no out-of-pocket costs other than applicable state licensing fees. They emerge fully qualified and command a journeyman’s wage.