The Lost Art of Apprenticeship: A Few Tips for a Resurging Practice

RL01-05-2016_2According to a 2012 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, a management consulting firm, we may face a shortage of about 40 million high-skilled workers and 45 million medium-skilled workers by 2020. At the same time, analysts predict that there will be a surplus of 95 million workers who do not have the training to fill most vacant jobs.

It’s a bleak assessment of the ever-widening skills gap in today’s workforce. Business leaders are scrambling to find solutions to address the skilled worker shortfall and secure the top talent needed to ensure the future success of their companies.

Bridging the Skills Gap
In light of the current situation, one long-held practice of building the next generation of skilled workers has seen resurgence in recent years.

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.

Today, driven by factors like the skills gap, the rising cost of higher education, and an increased emphasis placed on STEM education in schools, many young workers are finding apprenticeships to be an affordable and rewarding path toward meaningful careers.

Developing apprenticeship programs makes great business sense. Instead of spending time wading through the talent pool looking for workers who already have the skills you need, it may make more sense to find people who are less qualified, but willing to learn.

So, what makes a good apprenticeship?
Just as all businesses have their own individual characteristics, no two apprenticeships will be exactly alike. However, there are some broader core concepts and practices that will help set the stage for success.

  1. Set expectations
    Before taking on an apprentice, you must first and foremost set expectations. From outlining the training you will provide to setting a framework for what you expect from your apprentice and establishing milestones, both master and apprentice have to be prepared to make a commitment to each other.
  2. Lead by example
    Anyone who’s been in a profession long enough has undoubtedly picked up a few shortcuts along the way. However, in an apprenticeship, it’s important to stay away from “do as I say, not as I do.” It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Being meticulous about the process, every step of the way, builds greater understanding and respect for the craft and helps develop a more well-rounded apprentice who will be more capable of one day becoming a master.
  3. Let them fail
    Hands on experience is imperative to a successful apprenticeship, but the hands of a novice are especially prone to failure. Although it’s inevitable that apprentices will have their fair share of failure, the key is to help ensure they always fail forward, understand their mistakes, and use the knowledge of what went wrong to more confidently get back on the horse.
  4. Don’t sugar coat it
    Be upfront about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the job. Painting too rosy of a picture about the work they’re banking their career on can create false expectations. If an apprentice is going to have a successful career, they have to be willing to deal with potential pitfalls and be confident that they’ll be able to work through them while looking at the bigger picture and understanding that sometimes you have to suffer for your craft.
  5. Don’t lose touch
    Although an apprenticeship will eventually come to an end, it doesn’t mean the relationship should. Stay in contact with your apprentice and be active in following their career. Let them know you are there if they need help along the way. There may even come a point when the student becomes the master and returns the favor by teaching you a thing or two.

This is by no means a definitive list. Rather, it’s intended to be a starting point for building an effective apprenticeship program. The U.S. Department of Labor has a variety of resources available for businesses that want to develop programs of their own, including this informative Quick-Start Toolkit. If you’re invested in taking a hands-on approach to building the future of your company, apprenticeships may be the answer to bridging the skills gap. And, in many ways, may be an incredibly rewarding endeavor for everyone involved.

Have you ever taken on an apprentice? What advice can you offer? Were you an apprentice yourself? How did it affect your career? Let us know in the comments section below.

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