Apprenticeships

This post is an enhanced transcript of a talk I gave at 99u on May 6, 2016.

Our industry doesn’t do a great job of mixing learning with working. We setup things like weekend hackathons, afterwork programs, and “lunch and learns”—all great endeavors, but their very existence proves that we think of learning as a separate thing from work, that work doesn’t provide ample enough opportunity to develop new skills.

Writer and educator David Edwards laments the typical American school system setup in Wired article On Learning by Doing:

We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work… This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.

The separation of learning and doing is partly due to our incessant quest for maximum efficiency in the workplace, which is sometimes synonymous with the elimination of failure in the workplace. In her article Strategies for Learning from Failure in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Amy Edmondson describes a spectrum of reasons for failure, with blameworthy types of failure on one end and praiseworthy types on the other. Certainly, we don’t want our coworkers to fail because of deviance or attention, but the elimination of failure unfortunately removes the opportunity for failure through exploratory testing or uncertainty, which are crucial in creative process.

Consider the way we hire. Our job pages are strewn with solicitations for “extraordinary people,” prior work of “high quality,” an enthusiasm for those who can “champion ideas,” and countless other superlatives. The subtext is clear: you must be amazing before we hire you, because you certainly aren’t going to gain those skills here. The prerequisite for greatness is as crippling as it is sparse.

And for good reason. Imagine a job description that sounded like this:

We’re looking for a designer that’s a bit of an underachiever, someone fairly average.

No skills required.

Don’t worry about being a self-starter; if you can follow orders, that’s good enough for us.

This wouldn’t go over very well. Or would it?

Bridging the gap

Let’s look at a few statistics:

As a scatter plot measured against a spectrum or skills, that may look something like this (approximation—not drawn to scale):

In looking to fill vacant job openings, many tech companies look to the upper echelon of this graph. That results in the skilled becoming even more skilled as they move from job to job, creating a wider gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.

I believe there’s a great solution to bridge this ever-widening gap, and it’s called apprenticeship.

About apprenticeship

Wikipedia defines apprenticeship as “a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study.” Apprenticeship originated in medieval times and were largely governed by guilds.

Here’s how a blacksmith apprenticeship would work in those times. A parent would indenture their child—little Johnny, typically around 10 years old—to a local master blacksmith. Johnny would live with the blacksmith for about 7 years, learning the trade of blacksmithing but also learning the business of blacksmith, as well as life skills like cooking, cleaning, and generally how to function in society. Teaching all of these responsibilities were under the purview of the blacksmith, not just the craft. The blacksmith was responsible for teaching Johnny how to be a professional. This grooming of professionalism is what’s missing in the common internship today, which is why I believe in apprenticeships as a more productive model.

(For a deeper dive, interaction designer Ivana McConnell has written “Apprenticeship, an internship replacement,” a fantastic essay about the apprenticeship model.)

Apprenticeships are common among many different professions:

The design and development industry is full of internships that intend to teach good design and development practices, but it’s extremely limited in apprenticeships whose purpose is to create well-rounded professionals.

About SuperFriendly Academy

Since December 2012, I’ve been silently—and sometimes not-so-silently—running SuperFriendly Academy, a web design & web development apprenticeship that teaches both core skills and professionalism, but leans more toward the latter. It’s a 9-month program, created for people who have little to no experience with design or development but are looking :

Why have apprentices?

While you may be sold on the altruism of taking on an apprentice, you may be having trouble seeing what’s in it for you or your company. Fortunately, there are many benefits to investing in an apprentice or even an apprenticeship program:

Fishing in a larger pond

From a pure numbers perspective, you have lower odds of finding a new hire in the highly competitive market of 40,000 computer science graduates than you are the 8 million unemployed people in this country. The pool is simply larger.

Cost-effectiveness

It’s also way cheaper. Compare the numbers of poaching a highly competitive candidate vs. giving an accomplished apprentice a chance (these numbers assume a 5% annual raise):

  Experienced Designer Apprentice
Year 1 $80,000 $40,000
Year 2 $84,000 $42,000
Year 3 $42,000 + new job search $44,100
Total $206,000 $126,000

For one, the competitive candidate will come in at a more demanding salary and is likely to continue job hopping after year 3. After that time, you may have to deal with your more competitive candidate leaving, which means you’ve lost a good bit of institutional knowledge and also have a hefty replacement search ahead of you.

Less investment than you may think

As you consider the amount of time you may have to spend training an apprentice over 9 months, you may be skeptical about being able to carve out that effort. But, it’s probably less time than you think.

I’ve had ten apprentices under this curriculum, and, on average, the amount of time I’ve spent training each of them over 9-months is only 35 hours. That’s about 4 hours/month, 1 hour/week, or just 12 minutes a day. That’s right: pretty doable for just about anyone, even taking into account a busy schedule.

(The big caveat with these numbers is that it doesn’t include the amount of time I spend on direction within a project, but, because that time is project-specific, it’s work I would have done anyway directing anyone on the project team, so I don’t count it as general training time.)

Regarding money, the average amount I’ve paid to an apprentice over 9 months is $7,000. That’s about $1166/month, $292/week, $58/day, or $7/hour. That’s pretty affordable for many organizations. And for apprentices, choosing between minimum wage for a food service job and one that helps them invest in their future, I’d guess that choice is a no-brainer.

Diversity

Perhaps the most important reason to invest in training the untrained is that that pool of folks likely doesn’t look like you, think like you, work like you, or do much like you. And that’s an incredible thing. There’s so much sameness that exists in tech today, and that’s undoubtedly leading to the unoriginal and uninventive sea of products we see today. Intentionally investing in different perspectives can work wonders for every organization.

Don’t take my word for it; the very tangible results speak for themselves. In their article Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company reports that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry means, and racially- and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their resurrecting national industry means. Apprenticeships aren’t just an altruistic endeavor; they can directly impact your bottom line.

Join the cause

The great news is that there are already many apprenticeships out there for budding designers, developers, and UX professionals. The Nerdery runs an amazing UX Design apprenticeship, led by Fred Beecher. Fresh Tilled Soil runs a 15-week AUX program, which they just graciously open-sourced. Sparkbox runs a 6-month apprenticeship. Thoughtbot runs a 3-month apprenticeship. HUGE runs a 12-week UX school.

As of right now, SuperFriendly Academy is open for applications. Head over to the site and get in touch if you meet the guidelines.

There are already great programs out there like this, but there aren’t nearly enough. It’s about time that changed.

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