Mastering Your Craft

This past fall, I had the opportunity to participate in a multi-day retreat with a bunch of smart people where we focused on the future of work. Talking about the future of work led us naturally into  talking about the future of getting ready to work, aka our education system.

One of the concepts that came up, tying both work and education together, was apprenticeship.

On the education side, we are facing a crisis in higher education. It is increasingly difficult to get into college. Once there, students are having increasing trouble finishing on time, or even finishing at all. However they exit, young people and their families are incurring substantial debt burdens. And a college degree, even in a fairly “job training” focused field like business, marketing, or computer programming, is no longer a guarantee of a good job, or any job.

Meanwhile, employers complain that recent graduates lack the type of critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills the employers truly need in their workforce. And, in fact, the skills we need to be successful at work are changing dramatically.

Now some people – myself included – would argue that what is commonly referred to as a “traditional liberal arts education” (aka, studying impractical stuff like philosophy and literature) can, in the right circumstances, get you quite a long way towards acquiring skills like critical thinking and sense making and analysis and transdisciplinarity. But with the neighbors’ kid not finding work with her shiny new engineering degree, how many parents (how many students?) are really going to be willing to take that particular risk?

Even very technical degrees, like computer programming or engineering, don’t, in most cases, mean that the degree holder is ready to be a professional in that field. The degrees indicate an aptitude for the subject matter and a willingness to learn more about it, but people still need a period of mentored training to learn their craft.

“Mentored training”? Sounds a lot like apprenticeship.

For large chunks of human history, apprenticeship was the ONLY way to learn one’s work. You had a family business. You joined a guild. You clerked for a lawyer on the way to becoming a lawyer. You “watched one, did one, taught one” on the way to becoming a doctor.

You can still become a lawyer through clerking and taking the bar – in some places – rather than going to law school. Many licensed trades – plumber, electrician, welder – still work through apprenticeships.

Why not office/information worker jobs?

In the current model, a young woman completes high school and, with rare exceptions (i.e., the “gap year” model), proceeds directly to college. She studies something “practical,” like business, and graduates in four or five years, with an average school debt of more than $26,000. She may or may not have any real idea of what she actually wants to do, and even if she does, she may or may not be able to get a job in her chosen field.

Picture this as an alternative: a young woman completes high school. She takes a gap year to do a little looking around at the world, thinking about what she might want to do, and having adventures. At the end of that year, she gets an entry level job, but not flipping burgers or pulling espresso shots or answering phones. She gets assigned to a senior professional in a field that’s of interest to her – medicine, law, carpentry, association management, whatever – and starts learning her trade on the job and while drawing a paycheck.

“But,” you ask, “what happens when she realizes that she does need a class in biology (for medicine) or trigonometry (for carpentry)? And she didn’t go to college!”

Enter MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Right now, MOOCs are great – take classes from an Ivy for free! – and problematic – sure, but the best you can do is a completion certificate. In other words, it’s not a degree program.

But what if you just need the knowledge, and the degree doesn’t matter? What if, in other words, you’re an apprentice?

I’m not trying to argue that this is THE solution to all our student debt and unemployment woes. I am saying that it’s an interesting potential contributor to a solution.

What do you think? Would you have skipped college to apprentice to your profession? Would you encourage your kids to consider it?

Image credit: Institute for the Future

4 thoughts on “Mastering Your Craft”

  • Dan Pink made mention of this issue in his special New Year’s Day webinar, suggesting that a college degree as the sole (or primary) “signaling” devise of a person’s capabilities and knowledge was going to be further disrupted in the years ahead for many of the reasons you cited.

    I think what we are going to increasingly see is the diversification of pathways for professional development and knowledge certification and more personal opportunities to pick and choose and combine and commit to meet whatever are needs and interests might be at the moment. This will be a real challenge TO some traditional institutions and the role they have played in the vocational marketplace and FOR traditional institutions who are not open to looking at a portfolio of apprenticeships, self-guided learning, association education, and typical academic coursework as a viable signal.

  • Elizabeth –

    Great post. I just read a fascinating book called “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology” and they took it one step further – that certification, levels or badging could be used in the K-12 system as well instead of arbitrary grade levels determined by birthdate. Those kids who can move faster, will. You get the certificate in algebra and you are done with it whether it takes you three months or three years. Those who choose not to pursue that certificate, can have their talents utilized on other types of work they are more suited for and more desirous of exploring. I’m not saying “grades” should be eliminated entirely, obviously there is a good case to be made that children need age appropriate socialization and shared maturity levels with their peers. But teachers might need to start getting used to the idea that kids in their classrooms are going to have tools now that accommodate individual learning in many different subjects at vastly different rates. That makes the job infinitely harder, but it seems like it might be even more rewarding.

    I think there is much to be said for apprenticeship as a more intuitive way to learn. Most humans learn by doing. It’s one of the most effective ways we have to transmit information that can evolve into skills and knowledge. What is unnatural is the “factory” style education system that has evolved out of theories in the early 1900’s better suited to mass production than mass education. I’m not a K-12 hater, just someone who thinks things can and will be done differently in the future.

    Associations will/should/can have an important role in determining what is useful in the workplace and what isn’t for their particular market segments. Associations have more opportunities than ever to engage directly in this evolution and provide value to future members but not if they miss this window. It won’t be open forever.


  • Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE says:

    Another education-related concept that has been fascinating me recently is “flipped learning.” It takes the traditional model of classroom lecture and practice work at home and flips it, so students view pre-recorded lecture modules at home and then do their practicing work in the classroom, where they have people nearby who can help them when they run into problems (aka “teachers,” rather than parents who may or may not be able to help them with their physics or calculus work at home). Shelly, it seems to me that flipped learning ties nicely with the badging/certificate concept you mention, and potentially moves us away from the factory model you mention and Michel Foucault discusses in Discipline and Punish that has been prevalent for so long.

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