3 min read

The Tragic Death of the Apprentice

The Tragic Death of the Apprentice

We live in a new world, with incredible opportunity. There are many new and exciting aspects of that, but we've had some casualties of progress along the way.

In the late middle ages, if you wanted to learn a trade to pursue a well-paying career you had one path ahead of you—apprenticeship.

As an apprentice, you shadowed a master—an expert in his trade (whether he be a blacksmith, butcher, or anything else).

Typically, you'd start your apprenticeship as early as 12. You weren't paid, but you'd be provided food and lodging with your master's family for as long as you served (usually at least seven years).

The apprenticeship system has several key drawbacks:

  1. Your options were fairly limited. If you're lucky, you had one or two choices you could feasibly pursue.
  2. You lived with your master's family, and so almost never got to see yours.
  3. You went seven years (or more) without getting paid.

Despite those drawbacks, the apprenticeship system had one crucial aspect our education system has long since lost: focus.

The General Dilemma

I’m not sure why I ever went to college.

I mean, I know what they told me:

If you want to get anywhere in the world, you’re going to need a college degree.

So I spent 12 years studying “the basics” to get ready, and then two more years studying “general education” and “electives” before I could spend a year and a half studying the actual focus of my educational career.

In the end, I got my college degree. In fact, I got two—one in Spanish, and the other in Economics, because I couldn’t decide which to pursue.

I’m still not sure how either degree has actually helped my career.

As it turns out, 44% of my college-educated peers are working in jobs that wouldn’t typically require a college degree (another 8.5% of recent graduates are completely unemployed).

We could all use a healthy dose of focus.

We no longer live in a world where being well-versed in general knowledge is a boon.

We have Google for general knowledge, specialized experience is what the world needs from you.

The Intern Alternative

For some time, many businesses have offered “internships” as watered-down versions of apprenticeship, often in collaboration with a university so that students get credit for the internship in lieu of a course.

In some cases, this approach has worked well (that’s where Steve Jobs started out), but there is a movement to stamp even internships out.

In the past four years alone, more than 30 cases have been filed by unpaid interns eager to get back at companies that took a risk and gave them a chance to learn.

The intern debate has come to this because the intent of an internship is almost always wrong.

Employers see interns as free or cheap labor, sending them on endless errands (like coffee runs) simply to save them some time.

Students seek out internships for college credit, or for a “shoe-in” at a company where they might want a job one day.

Bringing Apprenticeship Back

We no longer have many of the same limits that caused apprenticeship's drawbacks in the past.

Apprenticeship creates an opportunity for learning real skills through 1-on-1 mentoring and hands-on work and allows you to trade your time for education (rather than accumulate massive debt).

Apprenticeship today could mean education focused on web development, graphic design, or building a brand.

We need apprenticeship back.

Historically, apprenticeship is actually a three-step system of learning:

  1. An apprentice studies under a master until he has solid experience in his craft,
  2. As a journeyman, the student continues his learning (only now, he works solo and can begin charging for his craft).
  3. Once his skills are complete, and the craft guild accepts the student’s masterpiece, he becomes a master (and can now take on apprentices of his own).

With the many new skill-sets in demand today, apprenticeship still makes sense—it’s time that we made a move to bring apprenticeship back.

At my company, we’re now using this structure to define each role on our team.

We're looking for Customer Success and Content Creation Journeymen, with the plan to expand the team with masters and apprentices later on.

Our culture has all but abandoned this system that lasted over 800 years. Maybe it's time we gave apprenticeship one more shot.

Question: If apprenticeship was a real option, how would things have been different at the beginning of your career?