The Apprentice System

Imagine you received this letter:

Dear [You],

I am about to graduate high school and have been accepted to several good colleges.  However, I believe that the cost and the potential benefits of the college life are no match for real world experience.  Drinking, partying and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on books, room/board and classes are not what I am interesting in doing for the next four years.  My interest is in learning and gaining real world experience.

Based on this, I have a proposal for you.  I want to learn how to be a [whatever you do] and have identified you as a master in your field.  I would like to be your apprentice.  I am willing to work for free for 4 years (length of a BA degree).  I will read any book you suggest and work diligently on learning the craft.  In return, you would teach me your craft.

This proposal will save me hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably teach me more than any four year degree could.  You would gain a hard working employee with no salary.  I understand that it is not really free as teaching me would use your time and energy.  I would supply money for books, computer and any software I needed.

If you are willing to be my master, I am willing to be your apprentice.  Sincerely, [Someone]

OK, so I am sure it could be written better, but the point is that the apprentice system is dead in modern times.  However, a thousand years ago, this is how skilled labor was created and perpetuated.  Why isn’t there an option for people to avoid a meaningless degree from a college only intent on taking student’s money?  Colleges are not teaching our youth how to work in the real world.  Even computer science degree students are not learning how to program for real.  They use outdated technologies to do outdated tasks.

I wish I had 4 years of work experience rather than 4 years of college.  I wonder how many other people feel the same way.  What other ideas are out there to improve the situation?

4 replies on “The Apprentice System”

Well, the apprentice system is live an well, just not in the US. Germany for example, still has a somewhat functioning apprentice system in the trades (Plummer, Roofer, Electrician, etc.)

However, the German system in particular and I guess the apprentice system in general is eroding to a certain degree, because of
* Job mobility
* Apprentices not trained in work shops but schools (or dedicated learning work shops as part of industrial manufacturing companies)
* Work places not having a wide variety of work (job by job) but very specialized tasks that are changing fast (causing parts of the above)
* Eroding senority priviledges

See, it used to be that a master of his craft had up and down times. During the down times the master could devote time to teach an apprentice. During the up time he had a willing servant doing all the mondain chores and hard labor that made it easier for him, the master, to do the parts that requried skill and experience. By the way the masters were also most often the business owners/managers with all the powers attached to that position.

Today, managers make sure that an experienced fellow is always fully utilized and so has no time for teaching. A master typically has no authority over his own time and no time to teach at all. She is always “busy”, ah I mean productive.

Also with the apprentice system comes that you traditionally were required to work (after the initial 4 years) for several masters a certain distance away from home. This got you to learn from multiple masters and broadened your horizons, and ensured a cheap but educated labor force for many masters. And after such a time of wandering you could settle with one master if you liked or learn more and proof before a board of your peers you are a master of your own. In Germany to this day you need to show this mastery to head a trades business. (The wandering part does not really exist any more, metal workers learn at “Daimler” [Mercedes Benz] and stay there for the rest of their lives).

Can you imagine a young mind to submit to such rigor in our days? In a rare exception, may be. But most people look at their careers as a succession of jobs, not a mastery of a single trade or subject.

Also apprenticeship is not a replacement for accademic learning. Certain things are much to formal and generic to learn from a single practical master (history for example). Although, accademic study in a university had the same principle, the reseracher also tought entry level classes and excelled in writing *the* text book about the subject. However with many colleages having no research at all and many researchers being to busy writing grants (not even doing real research) they have no time (or patients) for teaching lowly apprentices (I mean students). Hence the accademic learning has become a degree mill where the teachers have learned something in order to teach (or worse its just another job in their career) and not because they were really interested in exploring the topic to the far ends. There is no mastery to aspire to.

So you guessed right, apprenticeship is dead and it is a function of our (the US in particular) short sighted world view and the eroding of status barriers that came with a master apprentice relationship.

I leave it up to you if you think that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Hmmm, are you saying that you would rather a system of working instead of college? College was a great experience for me. I wouldn’t trade it for four years of actual skills. Isn’t the point of progress to increase quality of life, so why take away something enjoyable. Besides, what 17 year old kid really know what they want to do with the rest of their life. I think a better answer is more (and longer) internships and exchange programs in college. I had a semester long internship at the NYS Assembly my Junior year and it was a great learning experience, but it was also part of growing up.

Whatya think?