Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.


Taking The Road Less Traveled

WAYNESBORO—Matthew Farrar, FMS Class of 2018, didn’t consider himself a trend-setter when after graduation, he chose to follow a path that few consider. He just knew that the traditional route of high school to university to career wasn’t for him. The truth is, Farrar’s decision to attend The Apprentice School put him at the forefront of a rapidly growing movement to redefine post-secondary education and, indeed, success in America.

Matthew Farrar returns to FMS in 2021 to talk with the Corps about his experience at The Apprentice School.

Shockwaves across academia

In 2015, The New York Times, among other respected news outlets, sent shockwaves across academia when they began reporting on the rise in popularity of apprenticeships. Increasingly, students were opting to seek alternative pathways to their ultimate careers and, thereby, avoid the potentially crushing debt that can accompany enrollment in a traditional four-year college or university.

“Instead of accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, Apprentice School students are paid… and upon graduation are guaranteed a job with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the military contractor that owns Newport News Shipbuilding,” wrote Nelson D. Schwartz for The Times.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to earn and learn

Farrar, who will complete his four-year apprenticeship in 2022, firmly believes that taking advantage of the opportunity to earn while he learned was exactly the right choice.

“I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I love working with my hands and, financially, college is expensive… even after scholarships. I didn’t want to be paying off debt for years. Now, I’ve started my 401k, I have health insurance, vision, and dental insurance… I have great benefits and I have the opportunity to retire [from the Shipyard] if I choose, or I can branch off and apply my trade on my own.”

The Apprentice School by David H. Turner \ Courtesy Newport News Tourism Office

Not a second-tier choice

While many still labor under the misconception that an apprenticeship is a second-tier choice for students, it is important to note that The Apprentice School maintains high academic standards to ensure expertise in specific professional fields. Founded in 1919, the school has steadily built its curriculum over the years and now offers four-, five-, and eight-year apprenticeships in 19 shipbuilding disciplines along with eight advanced programs of study.

Academically rigorous

During his first year at The Apprentice School, Farrar studied AutoCAD (computer aided design and drafting software), Physical Science, Mechanics, Technical Mathematics, Drafting, Problem Solving, Business Operations and Leadership, Introduction to Computers and, of course, Ship Construction which involved detailed study of ship infrastructure. In addition to these courses, each discipline must complete a series of Theory Classes in which students learn the basics of their trade as well as specific skills such as reading and employing technical drawings.

Upon completion of their apprenticeships, students could enter the school’s advanced program, where they can earn degrees in Mechanical Engineering or study planning or design. Some who complete their apprenticeships are offered positions as supervisors within the shipyard itself.

Competition to enter is stiff

Although many still don’t know about options like The Apprentice School, competition to enter the program is stiff. According to the New York Times, “The Apprentice School gets more than 4000 applicants for about 230 spots annually, giving it an admission rate nearly equivalent to that of Harvard.”

Despite the lack of awareness and the persistent, misinformed stereotypes, more students every year are choosing programs such as those at The Apprentice School rather than pursuing more generalized studies at traditional post-secondary schools. In May of 2021, Forbes magazine reported that, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, apprenticeships have risen by 64% since 2010.

Appeal crosses socioeconomic lines

The appeal is not only growing, but also spreading across all geographic and socioeconomic lines. “We have people from all different backgrounds who come in with bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees from places like the University of Virginia and Michigan State,” Farrar says. “There are people all over the [shipyard] who have graduated with all kinds of degrees, and now they’re here paying off their debt and not even using their degrees.”

Heard from a friend

Farrar believes that programs such as The Apprentice School are too often ignored or simply lost in the myriad choices presented to high schoolers in the United States. “One of my good friends had gone to The Apprentice School and had mentioned something to me about it, but I had never really heard of it before or the shipyard.” Fortunately for Farrar, opportunity often appears when and where we least expect.

Farrar’s journey starts in his Junior year

While in his junior year at FMS, an athletic event changed his life. “I was at a wrestling tournament, The Virginia Beach Nationals, and there were recruiters from different colleges there. Coach Waters ended up taking me over to meet the Apprentice School wrestling coaches. I talked with them a bit and they gave me a brochure.”

Farrar remembers “long nights talking about what I wanted to do and what I was trying to do” with his father and consulting with mentors on campus at FMS. “There were all kinds of people who [were influential in the process]… [former Commandant] Colonel Gunn played a big role along with [former Superintendent] Captain Black, [former Senior Army Instructor] Colonel Hunt, Master Sergeant Morton, Coach Waters and, of course, my parents.”

Farrar turned his focus to raising his level of performance, collecting letters of recommendation, and doing what he could to ensure that he was the best candidate possible for whatever programs he might pursue.

“During my junior year I really started trying to crack down and get things straight. My whole senior year was school, wrestling, gym, shower, go home, do homework, then do it all again. It was really a grind to prepare myself to make sure I could get into somewhere.”

The right fit for Farrar

It was during his senior year at Fishburne that Farrar concluded that The Apprentice School was the right fit for him. “Everything that was involved in the shipyard was right up my alley. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to be able to build submarines and aircraft carriers.”

“Everything that was involved in the shipyard was right up my alley. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to be able to build submarines and aircraft carriers.”


After submitting his application, SAT scores and letters of recommendation, Farrar was invited to interview. Interviews for The Apprentice School are conducted by faculty members. “My dad took me there after school one day. We drove down there. I was nervous before the interview because I wasn’t sure what kind of questions they would ask. But everything played out well. They’re very nice people, the atmosphere is very relaxed, and it’s just a one-on-one interview,” he remembers.

Approximately one month after completing the application process, Farrar was accepted to The Apprentice School as an X22 Pipefitter Apprentice.

“I remember the exact second. I was sitting on the couch at my mom’s house when I got an email from The Apprentice School. I opened the attachment and there was my acceptance letter.”

The Apprentice School and Fishburne share common values

Transitions can be tough for students after high school. Fortunately for Farrar, the transition from Fishburne Military School to The Apprentice School was a natural one.

“Fishburne 100% gave me a leg up,” Farrar recalls. “Fishburne taught me a lot and I grew up a lot quicker as far as developing leadership skills go. There are a lot of leadership opportunities at The Apprentice School and discipline is held up to a very high standard. It’s very similar, in that way, to being at Fishburne.”

Another familiar concept Farrar encountered at The Yard, as apprentices often refer to the Apprentice School and Newport News Shipbuilding, was that of living and working in a meritocracy.

“If you put in the effort and make sure you pay attention, you will fit right in. There is a lot of guidance along the way and there are tons of opportunities, and you can ask anyone questions. You’re not going to be blindsided by anything because your supervisors will give you a heads up about anything that is going on.”

For Farrar, there was one more, very important similarity between life at FMS and life at The Yard. Tyler Allen, FMS Class of 2017, and fellow Caisson’s wrestler had just completed his first year at Apprentice School when Farrar was accepted to the program. Allen invited him to be his roommate. “It was awesome to know somebody already here. I moved in with him and that helped tremendously. I came down a week before my start date so he could show me around and show me where I needed to report.”

Moving into an apartment with a friend from high school, studying the class schedule, learning the campus layout, gearing up for your sport… it all sounds like an ordinary experience for any college freshman. At The Apprentice School, however, Farrar is quick to point out, “…at 7 a.m., the minute you step in for orientation, you start getting paid.”

Your first week at The Apprentice School

Orientation week at The Apprentice School is a busy mix of academic evaluations and Human Resources in-processing. “The first day was pretty crazy. We went around the room, and everyone introduced themselves and gave a little background story. They had all the teachers in there as well and they all did their own PowerPoint presentations. Advisors came in to talk to anyone from out of state. We’re under a union contract, so people from the union came in to talk to us. That day, people from all around The Apprentice School and The Yard give you a rundown of everything that’s going to happen and what you will be required to do.”

Matthew’s first year at The Apprentice School

The first year of an apprentice’s time at The Yard is dedicated to academics. Classes are held from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. two days a week. Following classes, those involved in a sport report to their teams.

Upon completion of their classroom requirements, apprentices spend their remaining time in the program learning to master their individual trades in a hands-on environment.

For Farrar, nearing the end of his apprenticeship, the day starts early.

On a typical day, he arrives to The Yard around 6:15 a.m. and makes his way to his team’s Conex where the crew meets to start each day. At this time the team supervisor briefs everyone on the tasks to be accomplished, distributes any mechanical drawings, equipment lists and pairs up each apprentice with a “mate” who will be their partner for the day.

“Then,” Farrar explains simply, “we go to the boat and go to work.” As a pipefitter, work for Farrar means installing or overhauling all piping systems on a submarine or carrier. An immense task, to be sure, requiring high levels of organization, skill and focus.

Looking toward his future

Looking to the future beyond his apprenticeship, Farrar aspires to remain at Newport News Shipbuilding in a supervisory role, helping to organize projects and mentor future apprentices.

Unlike most 21-year-olds about to emerge from under-graduate programs, Farrar is established and confident in his career and enjoys the security of knowing he has realistic and lucrative options. “People should really learn to look at the bigger picture when they think about their path. They should ask themselves ‘If I was at a university, for four years or however long I’m there, what are my plans going to be for after that?’”

“A trade is something you will carry with you for the rest of your life,” he says. “If I decide that I want to work here for the rest of my career, then I have every opportunity to do so.”

Many who could benefit are hampered by misconceptions

Although apprenticeships are on a sharp rise across the country, Farrar knows that many who could benefit greatly from the experience are hampered by the lingering misconceptions about the value of an apprenticeship versus a four-year degree.

“When people think about an apprenticeship, they really don’t have enough information to know if it’s the right thing for them or not. There just is not enough coverage about apprenticeships and I feel like people should keep their options open.”

“I think this path can be good for anyone. It’s just a matter of being willing to learn and enjoying working with your hands.”