So, what actually is an apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship is one of the oldest and most widely spread forms of learning. Every culture and civilisation has a rich tradition of young people, leaving childhood formally to work side by side with an older, wiser, skilled person to learn a trade. Often this arrangement was a “live in” situation, where young men and women were sent away from home to immerse themselves in the new world of work.
The importance of an apprenticeship system should be self-evident. There is no substitute for experience, and so we see that even in many careers that require a university degree significant emphasis is still put on the practicum. Lawyers, doctors, police officers, even pharmacists all must pass through some form of an apprenticeship in the first stages of their careers. In their various forms, apprentices focus on learning not only the technical skills necessary to perform the job but the soft skills necessary to do it well.
Formal apprenticeships are a relatively recent construct, regulating this once common and traditional mode of teaching. A century ago, the apprenticeship system provided the economy with skilled labour, artisans, craftsmen, and artists and in so doing, kept children from lower classed households off the streets. At various moments in history, governments have promoted apprenticeship schemes to meet the demand for skilled labour and avoid civil unrest.
A good apprenticeship then, as now, should combine formal instructions with hands-on learning. Young people were introduced to various contacts and given opportunities to showcase their talents. Masters were sought out as much for their skill as for their reputations in their industry. The system offered an efficient way for the “master” to transfer his knowledge to the next generation and so help a young person get a start in life.
Of course, at various times apprenticeships were little more than cheap labour, with artisans and industrialists hiring on dozens of children to work tirelessly at menial tasks. In the end, the apprentices rarely learned much of anything beyond how to work long hours on little food. As the industrial revolution spread, the traditional concept of apprenticeships waned. The move towards workers’ rights increased regulation on the system and formalised what was once a system governed primarily by tradition. The idea of using apprenticeships as cheap labour rather than properly investing in them began to lose favour.
What does that mean for apprenticeships today?
Today, apprenticeships are a much more regulated programme with minimum requirements regarding the formal training of the apprentice and the practical aspect of work. However, regulations don’t guarantee that abuses will not happen. There are still companies who fill most of their lower level positions with interns and apprentices to skirt labour laws. Except for being associated with a reputable firm, most interns and apprentices walk away from these schemes with little or no new knowledge. But for most, an apprenticeship can be a great start to a career. This is particularly true if the young person is pursuing a craft. Plumbers, electricians, roofers, and artisans are still in demand. Despite the changes in the economy, these sectors are unlikely to dry up, and there is a lot of money to be made if you ply your trade successfully. For young people who are not particularly academic or whose circumstances prevent them from pursuing higher education, an apprenticeship is still one of the best options.
In recent years, the government has been ecouraging young people to consider apprenticeship schemes. The ancient form of traditional learning is quickly being revitalised to serve the modern markets. As the old song says “everything old is new again.”
Jameka Neil Alexander Partners www.alexanderpartners.org.uk firstname.lastname@example.org 23rd November 2016
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