08 January 2013

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


Sylvia Dresser said...

Your post centers on content learning in college. We told our son that the four years was also about learning how to function in the world as an adult, with a gradually increasing set of responsibilities - car, rent, utilities, etc. We also told him it was a great privilege to have these years to do that learning, and were pleased with his development in that time. He had the opportunity to meet all kinds of people and explore a variety of subjects and ideas. Much broader "education" than the acquisition of knowledge.

Deborah Brooks said...

Unless a person has always known what it is they want to do (e.g. be a doctor), I'm not sure that most 18 y.o. are self aware enough to choose a profession. College gives them the opportunity for self discovery through exposure to many disciplines that weren't on their radar screen in high school. For example, I started off wanting to be a social worker and discovered, in college, that I'm more interested in and suited to IT and business and have an affinity for East Asian art and literature. Not something I even had a clue about back in high school.

Elizabeth Engel said...

Thanks for the comments!

Sylvia, I certainly think that college is one way to make the transition to adulthood, but I don't think it's the only way. And in fact, given current economic realities and the "extended adolescence" trend, I'm not even sure how effective it is at that these days.

Deborah, college is definitely a good place to get exposure to a wide range of disciplines, but again, I don't think it's the only way. And with the decline in focus on a traditional liberal arts education, again, I'm not even sure how effective it is at that for most students these days.

I'm not trying to argue that no 18 year old should ever proceed directly to a four year bachelor's degree. But I do think we have to start considering, offering, and accepting alternatives.