Old-School Apprenticeships in a New Era

Old-School Apprenticeships in a New Era

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to fifth grade; what did you want to be when you grew up? A doctor? A space cowboy? A gangster of love, perhaps? If you're like most people, the chances are pretty high that what you imagined doing for the rest of your life at age ten wound up being wildly different than what pays your bills today. Now, consider how you arrived at your current profession. If you had a chance to do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you choose the same path?

Every year, droves of ambitious high school students graduate and are faced with the overwhelming task of charting the course of their careers, often with little direction. It can be a terrifying question at any age: what are you going to do for the rest of your life? For many, pursuing a college degree seems like the most logical next step, but it may not always be the best option.

In Ye Olden Days (you know, back when the Black Death was all the rage throughout Europe), one couldn't exactly register at the local technical school or state college when it was time to train for a profession; those institutions didn't exist. If a strapping young lad decided to seek his fortune as a blacksmith, he would have to apprentice with a seasoned professional and pledge himself to learning on the job. It was an honest arrangement: knowledge traded for labor, handed down from sage master to eager apprentice. Sure, a would-be blacksmith might be able to learn the metallurgical foundations of horseshoes in a classroom, but for practical knowledge about how to avoid getting kicked in the head by a horse during a re-shoeing, an apprenticeship wins the day. In some cases, there's just no substitute for hands-on experience.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of high school students have no clear vision of what they want to do for their profession, let alone how to prepare for it right after high school. They need to experiment and learn what truly interests them, and pursuing that experimentation in college can be prohibitively expensive; just ask any recent graduate forced to survive on a diet of ramen noodles in order to keep up with student loan payments.

In 2013, the average college student was carrying a student loan debt of about $24K, with some students facing six-figure burdens. I believe this panic-inducing debt contributes to the fact that less than 60 percent of first-time bachelor's degree students actually earn their degree within six years. If you consider a mountain of debt alongside a sluggish economy that simply has few positions for fresh graduates, the prospect of graduating college and entering the "real world" becomes downright terrifying. Suddenly, pumping the blacksmith's bellows, fetching water, and shoeing horses doesn't sound so bad, does it?

As the father of a daughter preparing to embark on this grand journey, I've tried to keep an open mind about her plans for the future and do my best to help her make an educated decision. My daughter has always been interested in fashion, and during high school she's been able to take some fashion classes at a nearby art and design college to explore the depth of her interest. Her experience has reinforced her love of fashion, but it hasn't presented enough options to help her pinpoint a specific career path. Although she's looking forward to graduating from high school, she's also feeling a bit overwhelmed, and understandably so.

Current conventional wisdom practically demands that she proceed directly to college in hopes of figuring things out during her "general education" classes, but I have my reservations about the notion that bright high school graduates are wasting their potential if they don't immediately enroll in a four-year college. Given the hands-on nature of fashion work and the variety of positions available in the industry, my daughter may be better served by gaining practical insights through a well-developed fashion internship program.

As you're likely aware, interning is very similar to the tradition of apprenticing with skilled laborers and gaining practical experience on the job, much like the aforementioned future blacksmith. Many college curricula now require an internship (for which most students still pay tuition, incidentally) in order to graduate. While I was in college, I was fortunate enough to intern at a 3D animation and visual effects company. It was there, over the course of three years, that I was exposed to 3D modeling and animation, visual effects and compositing, and many other skills that went beyond the production and editorial lessons I learned in school.

I quickly learned which things I enjoyed and dismissed those that I loathed while getting an invaluable overview of everything, and all it cost me was time and effort. While I wasn't rewarded with food, a place to sleep, or clothing, as was common in old-school apprenticeships in colonial America, I also didn't risk getting kicked in the head by petulant horses.

Thanks largely to my internship, my portfolio was full of high-level projects when I finally graduated. In addition to providing me with access to better software and gear, my mentors at the internship could see clearly how interested I was in learning, and they were genuinely excited to nurture my skills. That practical training helped me to land a mid-level position in my field right after I graduated college.

I was fortunate enough to benefit from both a college education and a phenomenal internship, and I can honestly say that I learned a great deal from both experiences. If I were asked to repeat only one of those experiences, my choice would be to apprentice with professionals in my field due to the rich practical learning opportunities that a "real world" environment offers. I'm not saying that apprenticeship is better than a traditional college education for everyone, but I'm definitely saying that the choice merits serious consideration.

The bottom line is that your education is a significant investment, and you have to weigh the benefits and risks before making such a far-reaching decision. Spend some time thinking about what really interests you, eliminate the things that don't, and pursue your passion with dedication and conviction, whether that's through an apprenticeship, a college education, or both. Life is too short to waste time feeling unsatisfied with the choices you've made, or worse, with choices that were made for you.