If you're a fan of the television show Blackish, then you may recall the episode when Junior breaks the news to his solidly middle class family that he wants to take a gap year. Similarly, on Big Little Lies, Abigail insists to her mom, Madeline, that college is not for her. Instead, she wants to work for a startup.  Like many a Centennial, these TV characters question the ROI of college and their learning modes. These memes value learning by doing.

We will return to an apprentice model en masse in the 21st century.

This will be the best way to address the skills gap, prompted by ubiquitous technology and the need to reskill and upskill.

Currently there is a divide between where and when we learn and work. We'd like to think the boundaries are blurred, but they still exist for the majority of people and companies. The old model was that we stopped learning in order to work. And then once we began working, we ended the learning stage of our lives- be that high school, undergraduate or graduate school.  This is the case even in the midst of all the urgent recommendations that companies become learning organizations.

It wasn't always this way. In medieval Europe, the apprentice system was predicated on a learning by doing model supported by craft guilds and the government. Society implicitly supported the journeyman phase. This was that time between "apprentice" and "master" when a person traveled from town to town for work experience and depended on the kindness of strangers for room and board. 

Learning how to learn is the critical and crucial advantage of apprenticeships.

These new apprenticeships won't look like those of the medieval period. That is to say, no young lads with leather aprons, working elbow to elbow with the master blacksmith. Future apprenticeships will be characterized by diversity in age, ethnicity and contexts. Learning how to hack the human core back into technology will be as important as mastering the technology.  

From the demand side, young people are challenging the ROI of higher education. Notably, the 60 Year curriculum put out by a Harvard University research team encourages universities to assume a role of "long term capacity building" that generates dividends for decades. On the supply side, there are contemporary versions of apprenticeships. Here are a few examples.

  • White collar firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Amazon, IBM, MIcrosoft and Salesforce all  offer apprenticeship programs.
  • The Baltimore non-profit Living Classrooms applies the learning by doing model for workforce development. Their learners are children, young adults and even families. They take on a systems approach by integrating learning into community.,  
  • The US Department of Labor is a funder of programs in the healthcare system.
  • Drexel University has had a "co-op" placement system for years.
  • And new higher education alternatives like Minerva lead with experiential learning and global immersion. 

A major benefit of apprenticeships is that we learn best by doing. Any time we can put theory into practice, is an opportunity to build muscle memory and get good at framing questions. Asking questions, as Warren Berger has explained, is a way of learning. Fundamentally, learning by doing is driven by creativity. Making the creativity leap is key to bridging the skills gap divide. 

Creativity is your ability to integrate wonder and rigor to produce novel value.

Creativity is a competency that gets better when developed through experiential learning.  As such, all of us can practice it. In 2016 the World Economic Forum predicted that creativity would go from ranking #10 in 2015 as among the top 10 skills, to #3 by the year 2020. 

Benefits of Apprenticeships

Some of the benefits of incorporating apprenticeships into your business model include:

  • Interviewing prospects on the job
  • Higher engagement
  • Reduced turnover
  • The agile model of build-test-learn becomes part of your organizational culture. 

Those organizations that incentivize creativity and open their doors to novices and incentivize their employees to pay it forward by having an apprentice by their side will truly build learning organizations.