Forget the Interns--Hire an Apprentice
It's the season of shiny new interns. They are so cute, with their expectations and beliefs that they have all this superior knowledge gained by earning As in their political science classes. Or perhaps you have more technical interns that have earned As in their engineering classes. Either way, interns are great, and I highly recommend that you hire one or two or three.
But do you know what is even better? An apprentice.
What's the difference? Well, the Dictionary.com definition of intern includes the word "apprentice," so on the surface it seems like they are very similar. They are both people, usually young, who want to learn a career. But the big difference is the amount of time involved.
If you remember from your history classes, young boys (and occasionally girls) were apprenticed to experts in everything from barrel making to medicine. The apprentice stayed with his "master" (not a term I'd like to resurrect) for years. How long does the average intern stay around these days? Three months? Four? One semester or one summer. Often, college students try to gather as many internships as they can during their time in higher education. But, what about the apprenticeship model?
Did you learn the ins and outs of your job and your business in three months? Probably not. In fact, we generally tell managers to give new hires a good six months to settle in and add benefits to the company. (It's one of the reasons the cost of turnover is so much greater than just headhunter fees. Hitting the ground running is very unusual.) But we expect interns to gain great understanding in a short period of time.
An apprenticeship is different. With that, there's an understanding that the relationship between apprentice and mentor (better word!) will go on for years. The apprentice learns to do what the mentor does, not just general things about being in business.
This seems clear cut when it comes to plumbing (a profession that still has apprenticeships), but instead of using this system for other areas, we rely on universities to train people. This is utterly illogical, as many professors haven't spent much time in the actual business world. Why would we expect them to train our future employees? I'm not knocking education, by the way. Logical thinking, technical knowledge, and the ability to write are all valuable things. And some stuff just requires lots of memorization. (I don't want my doctor stopping to Google if I'm having a heart attack).
But, what if you started hiring apprentices? (And yes, you have to pay them unless you can prove you're not benefiting at all. And the reality is, even if you're not benefiting at the beginning, you'd be benefiting by the end.) What if you brought on a college freshman with the understanding that he or she would work for you for 1o hours a week for the next four years? And that this person would not be in an entry level job sorting mail and filing excess paper, but would sit beside you in meetings, and learn to do what you do. Not just general knowledge about your business, but what it takes to do what you do?
Think of how that apprentice could be light years ahead of his or her counterparts when college graduation comes about? The knowledge of how to handle a problem, how to put together a proposal, what goes into finding a manufacturer, and what a pain it is to find good insurance for your company, would be invaluable to the apprentice.
And it would be invaluable to your company. The apprentice's ability to contribute will become greater than any string of interns, all at a reasonable price. And when your apprentice finishes the apprenticeship, you can either offer a permanent job or another company will be happy to snap up a new grad with four years of real experience.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.