The End of Apprenticeship
post # 121 — June 29, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post
In the old days, a professional business was a special kind of organization, one that was designed to bring into balance the demands of the client marketplace and the marketplace for talent.
The way firms or companies attracted young talent was to offer an apprenticeship – the expectation that people would join the firm and would be helped to progress along a reasonable well-defined career path until they either became one of the senior officers of the firm (partners, for example) or moved on. People joined the firm for careers, not jobs.
This didn’t necessarily mean that people planned to stay with one company for life. It did mean that, if the system was not exactly “up or out”, then it was at least “grow or go.” Talented people didn’t expect to stay at a given “level” for extended periods of time, and firms did not want them to.
Senior people, in the past, understood the aspirations of young professionals, their ambitions, their fears and their needs. After all, they had come up in the same system. And it was a system. Explicitly or implicitly, eveyone knew what the “deal” was – what was being exchanged for what.
All that’s gone now, of course. Companies did a number of things to abandon the apprenticeship model:
a) Lengthened the time and odds of making it to “partner-level” positions
b) Started hiring experienced people at advanced levels, thereby ‘blocking’ the path for those who were coming up the old way
c) Established permanent non-partner positions, also ‘blocking the path’ and signaling that not everyone was expected to have career advancement
d) Made partners lives so stressful and unattractive that many junior people increasingly question whether the benefits of partnership are worth the efforts that an apprenticeship would require
e) Placed greater pressure on partners to generate work and serve clients, thereby reducing the amount of partner time available for mentoring, coaching and development of juniors
f) Shifted responsibility for developing people away from senior professionals and reassigned it to trainers and HR departments (!)
g) Started holding back crucial feedback on whether or not people were going to ‘make it': ostensibly this was to avoid making misleading promises for future promotions, but increasingly gave the impression that the firm wanted people to hang around “one more year” without the firm having to give any reciprocal undertaking
h) Stopped viewing their employees as future partners, and started treating them like REAL employees – resources to be consumed, not assets to be grown
The problem with shift from an “apprenticeship” model to an “employee” model is that it couldn’t have been done at a worse time – right when there was a scarcity of talent, and when a new generation of people came along who could not conceive of investing seven or ten or twelve years of their lives to “make it.”
This is not just a minor change, but a major revolution. Every assumption on which the professional business model was built has gone out the window. Firms don’t offer apprenticeships, and younger people don’t want to serve one. (See the June 11 blogpost at Adam Smith, Esq .)
Firms that abandoned the apprenticeship model now bemoan the fact that turnover among the junior ranks is extraordinarily high and juniors are not “loyal.” Well, duh!
Apprenticeship is dead, but no-one is quite sure what has taken its place. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to me to be a well thought-out, internally consistent set of policies and practices. It’s a patchwork quilt covering up the gaps in an old fabric that has been forever torn.
Hi David – I find your observations really interesting…and very accurate! I myself am pretty new into the working world and did the it old-fashioned way – at the bottom. And really, I can’t see doing it any other way. I have had the opportunity to see how the company works and help out on such a diversity of projects. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am confident that the manner in which I entered the workforce will enable me to be far more successful in my career as the years progress.
posted on June 29, 2006