If you look at the data, we’re facing a potential crisis in technical and professional skills. One answer to this modern problem could be centuries old. It’s called the apprentice system.
A post titled The Lost Art of Apprenticeship gives a great summary of the concept:
Apprenticeship has a long history, with roots going back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Craftsmen often employed young people as laborers who, in addition to living arrangements, received training in their craft. Starting as young as 10, apprentices would live with their master craftsmen teachers for years, learning their trade and honing their skills before eventually striking out on their own, and continuing the cycle by taking on an apprentice of their own.
That same piece highlights the problem using some pretty raw numbers. In the next five years:
- A shortage of 40 million high-skilled workers
- A shortage of 45 million medium-skilled workers
- A surplus of 95 million workers who do not have the training to fill most vacant jobs.
In short, young people especially need to be trained, and the people best equipped to that training are the experts already working in those areas.
Here in the United States, we usually use a different term to describe a program designed to help people develop on-the-job skills. That word is internship. But there’s a big difference between the two, as outlined in a piece on Glassdoor. For example:
When it comes to an internship, most people either do it for a semester or summer and then move on to the next one or get hired full-time. With an apprenticeship, it can take years to complete and requires a full-time commitment. While there are programs that last only a year, many are multi-year in length. “Internships are generally shorter and don’t have any classroom instruction attached to it,” says John Ladd, administrator, Office of Apprenticeship, U.S. Department of Labor. “An intern gets work experience and an apprentice gets more than just work experience.”
There’s another key distinction between these two types of programs: job prospects. That same article explains:
In a perfect world, you would complete an internship in your senior year of college and then get a full time offer from the employer you have been working for, but that’s not always the case. In many cases, your internship won’t get you that foot in the door. However, an apprenticeship will. Since the employer is sponsoring you and spending the time to teach and train you, you are almost guaranteed to have a good paying job once you complete the program.
In fact, the benefits to apprenticeship are so significant, one might wonder why internships exist at all? One common accusation is that companies use them as a mechanism to get inexpensive labor, rather than their stated benefit of benefiting the student.
Studies show that perhaps half of all interns are unpaid, but many if not most of these arrangements may be illegal. Plus, it’s become practically a necessity for college students to have at least one paid internship to graduate, and even in many cases to be offered a job.
By bringing on apprentices rather than interns, organizations benefit from the employee’s labor while investing in their future. They don’t need to worry about losing them after a month or a semester, but instead can design supervised, hands-on curriculum that lasts as long as in-house experts believe is necessary. And the individuals who are in those roles can be assured that they will be paid a reasonable wage. Everyone wins.
The big opportunity is to create apprenticeship programs beyond the traditional areas such as carpentry, metal fabrication, plumbing, electrical work, and so on. There’s no reason we can’t have software developers, engineers, attorneys, accountants, marketing professionals, educators, journalists, or virtually any other profession supporting apprentices. And if those fields want candidates with practical experience, shouldn’t they open their doors to young people who are ready to work?
Let’s bring back apprenticeship! It has all the power to be the solution to the coming skills gap.