Is the Art of Apprenticeship Dead?

Earlier this year, I was walking the streets of Fez, Morocco and I couldn’t help but notice the artisans diligent at work on their craft. Hands dirtied from the leather dyes and eyes perched over sewing looms, I imagined the years of study and apprenticeship to learn their art.

In traditional craftsmanship, the art of apprenticeship is still alive – older, experienced artisans take on apprentices to learn how to do their trade. They take the time to invest in their training and pass on years of lessons learned.

The concept of master/apprentice is apparent in modern day form – often as a mentor/mentee. A modern day mentor may share characteristics with a “master” although there is an open question around a mentor’s experience and skill, and whether she has offered up her wisdom or has simply been assigned as a mentor through a local program or organization.

Apprenticeship implies an inherent art in creating an end product. Is this even viable in our workplace today? If the end product is a PowerPoint, is that a craft? Or a piece of artwork? What are the boundaries and limitations of crafts(wo)manship?

Apprenticeship also implies that the master has successfully understood the depth of his field through a certain level of skill expertise and time investment. Who are the wise, experienced individuals who are ready to instill their ways of working and being in the world? Are they ready to create a legacy and commit to teaching others when the moment is right? Also, when time is a precious resource, do the people we call “mentors” really make the time to teach others the art of their craft?

When I look at academic / PhD programs, I am envious of the apparent apprenticeship model that still exists – professors working with graduates students in a time intensive and meaningful way. Perhaps, coming from the business and nonprofit world, where the expectations around mentors is different, I am envious of the time and commitment the professors make (even if it may be part of the job description).

Certainly, there are professions where traditional apprenticeship still exists. And perhaps this is most evident in European countries where young people test their interests before committing to a professional direction. In a recent TED talk I listened to about “dirty jobs,” Michael Rowe discusses alternate career paths and the foundation he started (mikeroweWORKS) to meet the needs of people interested in skilled trades.

To use Michael Rowe’s language, I think there is a “profoundly disconnected” generation today who is looking to revive the art of apprenticeship and really commit themselves to a worthy path. It might be by building the way in which mentors and mentee relationships exist, or it may be that there is a resurgence of traditional apprenticeship – that is no longer based on artisans, but rather in all professions that require discipline and rigor to learn the craft.

Who is ready to learn from the elders in this brave, new world when anything can be learned online? What does that time commitment and sacrifice look like?

Shout-out to Julia Enyart and Julia Holup whose conversation over Beau Thai food a few weeks back helped me formulate some of these ideas. Also, thanks to Shelley Danner for her feedback and edits!