The Return of the Classic Apprenticeship

What goes through your mind when you hear the word, “apprentice”? Outside of the reality TV show, Celebrity Apprentice, I instantly think about an old English blacksmith or a shoe cobbler who invites a young adult to shadow him, to learn the tricks of the trade and to eventually master it. Many industries throughout history practiced apprenticeships as the primary means to prepare a new generation of workers.

Well, I’m happy to report—I’m seeing apprenticeships making a comeback.

I recently did an interview with Fast Company magazine, where we discussed the comeback of apprenticeships and which ones work the best. Let me share with you what I said during the interview.

First of all, what do you consider to be an apprenticeship?

At Growing Leaders, we consider an apprenticeship an entry-level role in a workplace environment. It’s a first step into a career—not just another classroom—where the stakes are higher, but growth remains paramount and learning is the focus. It is a step beyond an internship in our world. We hire college interns three times a year for a semester-long experience. Apprentices are college graduates who are paid a larger stipend, given more responsibility and opportunity, and serve for between nine and twelve months. Apprentices also specialize in a single area, such as marketing, program excellence, sales, or operations.

Why do you think they’re making a comeback?

First and foremost, I think it’s due to the fact that many university students I meet have never worked a real job prior to graduation. Parents have had them on teams, doing practices or recitals, throughout their K-12 education, but often they have not been encouraged to actually work at a paying job. Students frequently feel ill prepared for a full-time job, but they are willing to step into an apprenticeship to gain their “sea legs.”

Second, we meet many university grads who say they still don’t know what they want to do in their career. An apprenticeship allows them to explore tasks in a work environment and learn what they like and dislike, in a relatively short time period.

What do you do for apprentices to help them grow and mature?

We are intentional about the apprentice experience. First, they sit in on all team meetings—as if they’re full-time team members who’re hired indefinitely on our team. Our training for apprentices includes four quadrants that spell the word: IDEA.

I – Instruction. They attend our weekly Lunch and Learn, participate in monthly mentoring book discussions with me, and they meet with directors. They also will do one book review during their time with us in front of the entire team.

D – Demonstration. They work next to a veteran team member and get to watch them do the work, receiving a model for marketing or operations. They also get to travel and do field trips. We talk with them regularly about what they’re observing.

E – Experience. They’re assigned genuine projects that must get done, and they are given ownership of them. We’ve had journalism majors who research a book; marketing majors who help on social media, business majors who help with operations, etc.

A – Assessment. They’re given ongoing evaluations in real time during their months with us. Each apprentice will work in one or two departments and receive feedback on their progress, as well as the areas that need growth. We believe that reflection fosters maturity.

Do you pay them?

We pay a stipend to both interns and apprentices and help them find a host home to cover their room and board. Apprentices receive a larger stipend, serve a longer term and have greater responsibilities than our interns, because usually they are recent graduates who are more mature. But, their greatest “pay” is the experience.

How do parents benefit from the apprentice experience?

We’ve received countless “thank you” notes from parents while their child serves with us as an apprentice. The chief reason is that we stretch the apprentice in areas they must grow in for career success, but we stretch them with a healthy dose of “grace.” Much like the builders of the Golden Gate Bridge who were able to complete construction more efficiently because of the safety nets below, we try to offer a place for them that’s safe to fall or to fail forward. They are exposed to real work, in a healthy culture.

Do graduates prefer apprenticeships over a full-time job?

When a full-time job is available, graduates will frequently choose those over an apprenticeship. Often, I think they should. Yet, in today’s culture, the leap from backpack to briefcase is enormous. We meet employers all the time who complain about unready young professionals who made marvelous grades in the classroom, but who have unrealistic expectations about work. Becoming an apprentice equips recent grads to take both realistic and relevant steps forward in the marketplace. The role does not feel so daunting or intimidating to the young professional, and it gives them a middle and temporary step to take in route to their chosen career. For many of them, an apprenticeship feels like a “life hack.” It’s an advantage to getting ahead.

Not long ago, I received a note from a former apprentice. She simply wrote:

“Dr. Elmore—The further I go into my career, the more grateful I am for the Growing Leaders’ apprenticeship I had three years ago. It was just what I needed to expose me to the real world, but to insulate me from becoming cynical about it. The projects you all let me oversee, and your ‘management by objective’ leadership style enabled me to soar to new heights and feel like I was ready to make a difference in the world. Thanks for taking a chance on me… Now I get to supervise interns and apprentices in my new role and I can hardly wait to duplicate what you all did with me.”

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The Return of the Classic Apprenticeship