Apprenticeship, Internship, and the Military Model

InternHow do you get good at something? You practice. You make mistakes. You get feedback. You try again. In the past, you learned by doing. You found an expert in a trade and apprenticed yourself. You learned by trial and error. The system of apprenticeship was first developed in the late Middle Ages by craft guilds. A master craftsman provided food, lodging, and expert training in the craft in exchange for labor.

The contemporary internship, in theory, is similar to an apprenticeship. However, modern internships are often unpaid; you are lucky if you actually learn job skills and are not stuck doing mundane tasks that do not teach the trade.

The traditional military model of learning a trade still works well. In the military, the recruit learns skills by observation, practice, and feedback. I remember my time in a U.S. Navy “A” school, which was split about half and half between the classroom and doing the actual work. You got immediate feedback from the supervisor if you did something wrong, and then you tried again. The military couldn’t fire you, so there was room for error, room to learn. Today’s work environment often does not tolerate mistakes. Make a mistake and you might be fired or asked to resign.

The current model of education is mostly classroom based, where teachers actively give and students passively receive. Basically it is about grades, not about experience. In the modern era, traditional apprenticeship job training has largely been replaced by vocational classes or college courses. The classroom model does not serve us well in every learning environment.  Maybe we should re-visit the apprenticeship model. Lessons from the past teach us that apprenticeships are mutually beneficial to the worker and the mentor or the organization.

“If you want success, figure out the price, and then pay it.”                     – Scott Adams, cartoonist

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