Is the apprenticeship model still relevant?

Apprenticeship is a model of training passed down from one generation to the next.  The explicit goal is to pass along a specific competency, a basic set of skills, in a structured manner.  Most of the training is on-the-job working/learning within the framework of a formal agreement.

Is the apprenticeship model still relevant?

The system of apprenticeship first developed in the late Middle Ages, still later supervised by trade craft guilds.  The master craftsman was entitled to employ young people (cheap labor) in exchange for room, board and years of formal training to learn the craft.

Apprenticeship was the the way young people of modest means could learn a trade and move from a slow, dull rural agricultural lifestyle to a potentially more exciting urban lifestyle.  The rise of trade crafts, and the corresponding guilds for each one provided structure for a career based on talent and hard work.all_globe_rgb

Young men and women apprentices aspired to earn the title of master craftsman/woman upon completion of their contract (typically seven years minimum).  The most fortuitous of them could hope to acquire their own workshop and then in turn employ young apprentices.

Not all apprentices became master craftsmen.  Some would linger as journeymen (from the old French term for a day of labor, or une journée), and a significant portion would never attain the lofty goal of owning their own workshop.

A journeyman, later called a companion, would travel from site to site looking for work.  This is not unlike today’s proliferation of consultants, wondering from project to project, a form of transient semi-skilled day labor.

So, is the apprenticeship model still relevant?

For professional services  professionals it certainly is.  Professionals – doctors, lawyers, academics, accountants, engineers, consultants, etc. – typically begin their careers with some form of internship, a modern form of apprenticeship.

These professions roughly follow the traditional master-apprentice model:  the newcomer to the firm is assigned to one (or several) experienced colleagues or partners and learns the trade craft on the job, by applying the theoretical knowledge in some useful practical way.

Knowledge transfer from master to apprentice takes time and effort and considerable mentor-ship skills.  Of course, some master craftsmen take the role more seriously than others.  It does not add much value to delegate subordinate tasks (photocopies, mail room, filing …) and sometimes the young eager learner is short-changed in his contract to learn the trade craft.

Is the apprenticeship model still relevant?

Unfortunately, less and less, especially as the industrial sector becomes more world robotized and the artisan world disappears.  The new trades in technology often have no older generation to learn from:  the work is done by young technicians and engineers because it involves new skills and new competencies.

One of the most successful models of modern day apprenticeship can be found in Germany where the dual education system works so well that finding employment without having completed an apprenticeship is almost impossible.

The organization and public-private partnership of the apprenticeship model – companies, unions, Berufsschule (vocational school), government – has provided an excellent framework to adapt centuries old apprenticeship models to fit with today’s workplace requirements.

Two thirds of German youth begin some form of apprenticeship before age 22 and three fourths complete them successfully.  Legislation requires all large firms to train and develop young workers.  Over half of German workers have been through the apprenticeship model, and it is still an effective tool today to provide an entry point into the workforce.

The apprenticeship as an industrial manager (Industriekaufmann) teaches practical skills in the area of procurement, staffing, accounting, production, logistics and many more concrete, useable, practical competencies.  This training is less lofty than an MBA, but more suited to many functions within industry.

The tradesman/woman is a skilled worker in a particular trade or craft.  Economically and socially, a trade-person’s status is often considered between a laborer and a professional.  Many of the employment opportunities in today’s modern economy are found here, and it is here where the greatest shortage of skilled workers can be found, mostly due to the lack of a proper apprenticeship system.

Moreover, the behavioral modeling which occurs within the apprenticeship system is invaluable to teach not just the technical skill, but how to carry oneself day-to-day to build a solid reference framework to work hard and in a structured manner to provide well for oneself and one’s family.

The trade craft once learned through the lengthy apprenticeship training, can be parlayed into other trade crafts as the modern economy powers forward into new trade vocation.  A ‘Jack (or Jill) of all trades’ is a colloquial term for a person who has skills and qualification in multiple trade crafts.  This ability to morph a skill into a new tradecraft (from typesetter to electronic printing) is an essential feature of a healthy modern economy of skilled workers.

Apprenticeships have a tremendously important role in today’s economy and the relevance of the model needs more attention for this important social and economic framework to thrive as we complete our transformation to the new age of industrial organization.


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