The Benefits of Apprenticeships

by Thursday Bram on 30 August 2012 1 comment

An apprenticeship sounds old-fashioned — something young people did a few hundred years ago in order to learn crafts before there were community colleges and entry-level jobs. But the reality is that there are still apprenticeships being offered today, and they provide a valuable level of experience that new workers are unable to find anywhere else. (See also: Should You Wait to Go to College?)

Today, an apprenticeship takes a recognizable form — an apprentice will start out doing basic work for an employer while learning the specific skills needed for her trade. In many companies, apprenticeships include both on-the-job training and theoretical education at a local school. After training is complete, it’s expected that the apprentice will continue working with her employer for a certain period of time. The deal is great; the apprentice gets both education and a guaranteed job after her training, while the employer gets a trained employee who will stay with the company for the long-term.

Ryan Thewes, an architect based in Nashville, completed an architecture degree in 2000 and followed it up with an apprenticeship. Thewes found an opportunity to learn from a former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. That connection has lead Thewes down a path of working with different architects: “I think it is the combination of my two apprenticeships, one with Don Erickson and one with Bart Prince, that has allowed me to forge my own path and style within the profession and have given me the tools needed to execute it and make it a reality.”

The experience that Thewes gathered during his apprenticeship differed from that of his fellow graduates. “Many graduates go straight to work in big offices and rarely deal with clients or builders. They spend the first few years of their careers drafting details and staring at computer screens,” notes Thewes, who was able to learn how to actually deal with both clients and builders. “In class, it is easy to design interesting and creative buildings. In reality, budget drives most design decisions, so buildings begin to look the same and fall into a rut. This especially holds true for residential architecture. Most builders are only interested in knowing what they already know. It is safe and comfortable for them and not much risk. When something unusual comes up, prices go up. One valuable thing my apprenticeship was able to teach me was the way to work with clients and with builders in a way to ease the fear of ‘different.’”

Many companies, big and small, are using apprenticeships to ensure that they have the workforce they need. Companies like Siemens operate local apprenticeship programs in partnership with community colleges, like the Apprenticeship 2000 program.

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Such programs have made it easier to find apprenticeships, but in most career paths, it’s up to you to find the right fit. Thewes knew he wanted to work with architects with a certain style, and he sent resumes to a whole list of them. He made phone calls and arranged meetings just to find out more about well-known architects, and he jumped on the opportunities that resulted. Thewes describes how he landed his apprenticeship: “During my final year of school, I received a magazine that featured the work of Don Erickson. Mr. Erickson was with Wright from 1948 to 1951. I was fascinated with his work as it was organic in design, but didn't directly copy Wright. I immediately called him up to ask if I could go up to Chicago to meet him. My intention was just a visit, and not an interview. Once I got there, we hit it off. I was in awe of his approach to architecture and he was smitten by my enthusiasm. He asked what I was doing after graduation next year and asked if I would like to come work for him for the summer. I immediately accepted. Long story short, one summer turned into a couple of years.”

Employers do look for different characteristics in apprentices than in entry-level employees. A commitment to a specific craft is key. Nicholas Yeager ran a specialty bookbinding business in New York City, where he trained five apprentices over six years. His apprentices all expressed interest in the craft, beyond just looking for a job: “Some were graduates of book arts programs, others had craft skill and an interest in bookbinding...I tried hiring people that didn't have the commitment and interest, and they didn't work out well. When I focused on a different class of worker, my results were improved quite a bit because they were fully engaged with the craft, not the paycheck.”

Yeager had learned his trade through an apprenticeship as well. The value of the apprenticeship system made itself clear. “I paid for my training in classes at night and had short-term work situations where I assisted my instructors. This slow method of learning wasn't conducive to building craft skills, as I didn't have a space to work all the time. I spent six years doing binding part time. Then I got work at a library followed by a specialty production shop where I did repetitive work and built up my skill set. The importance of doing an action a few thousand times cannot be taught in a class setting. It can only be assimilated at the workbench.”

The apprentices who passed through Yeager’s shop have gone on to have a variety of careers. While several have gone on to work in book binderies and library preservation departments, at least one has built a career as an artist, pulling her knowledge of bookbinding into such projects as a series of woven books.

No career training program is guaranteed to turn students into successes, but the in-depth training that apprentices receive, from the actual skills of their crafts to how to deal with clients and how to run a shop, certainly improves the rate of success.

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The engineering firm I work for really should institute apprenticeships. We keep poaching from the other firm in the industry because no one outside knows our industry. They do the same. The result is that we're both understaffed. It's long past time to train some people.