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Advocating Mentor Apprenticeships in the 21st Century

The tradition of apprenticeship is not talked about often these days. In fact, the given assumption in America for almost any sustainable career is that one must attend 2-4 years minimum at a college or trade school, and longer for some careers like law and medicine.  However, apprenticeship is actually a long-standing tradition for acquiring a skill, dating back many centuries, brought over by the colonists, and practiced in some form throughout our history. (Perhaps the most famous colonial apprentice was one Benjamin Franklin, who learned the printing trade at his brother’s print shop.) Sometimes, as in Franklin’s case, apprenticeship was as simple as learning a family trade; sometimes, the system was more severe and broken, as in the colonial practice of indentured servitude. But it seems the mentor-apprentice learning approach has always been with us.

In the early 20th century, the U.S. government began passing legislation officially supporting various apprenticeship initiatives, including the Smith-Hughes Law in 1917 and the broader Fitzgerald Act of 1937. During the 1920s, apprenticeship was mostly the domain of the labor unions, but with the Fitzgerald Act, the Federal Government began taking a more aggressive role.1,2 Often, these apprenticeship programs utilized a dual vocational training approach, combining a certain amount of schooling with hands-on training on-the-job (an approach still touted and promoted today in Germany).3 Many businesses integrated apprenticeship into their training in order to teach new employees how things were done at their particular company, largely because the new hires who had been college-educated often needed to “unlearn” some bad practices and misinformation taught in those schools.



However, as the previous century came to a close, a troubling pattern emerged. Employers started determining that it was more cost-effective to break up a job into a series of smaller, lower paid jobs, requiring employees with fewer skills to perform them. This allowed for an endlessly replaceable workforce and reduced the training time to about one day.  Unfortunately, in many cases, it also removed the employer from the practice of apprenticeship. This trend has gone hand in hand with the increasing disconnect between our higher education system and apprenticeship since the early part of last century. The end result is a largely outdated system that no longer offers any assurance that the student will find a rewarding career at the end of his/her educational pathway, and one in which in which the employers no longer have “skin in the game” when it comes to offering proper training and mentoring. Students who have been trained by a mentor are still more likely to succeed in the work force and earn more money, but it has now fallen to the student to find a mentor willing to apprentice him/her—and because of the prevailing mindsets about conventional higher education, many students don’t even realize this is an option anymore.

The fundamental problem with these developments is that while mentor/apprenticeship programs have lost neither their relevance nor their effectiveness, the lack of corporate support for these programs has left a definite gap in the educational system, and students and employers alike are now paying the price. Ironically, many people in the professional fields still recognize the effectiveness of apprenticeship over formal academic education alone. Consider the following:

  • The Obama administration has consistently hailed the importance of mentor/apprentice-based education. Just this year, the White House announced new major incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage local businesses to partner with community colleges in providing a dual education mentor/apprentice method similar to what continues to be practiced in Germany.4  Unfortunately, thus far, participation by U.S. companies has been almost non-existent; mainly overseas companies have participated.5
  • A startling number of billionaires lack a college degree.  In fact, over a third of them never finished college.6  Many of the most successful entrepreneurs actually recommend apprenticeship as an alternative to formal college education.
  • Apprenticeship is still practiced naturally within many careers and trades.  Even doctors and lawyers, with the staggering amount of formal education and testing required of them, still have to undergo some form of internship before actually embarking on their own careers. The reason? Even these more “elite” professions recognize that formal schooling provides only theory and simulations, and that their up-and-coming professionals still require seasoning and a healthy dose of reality through real-world job experience.



So what is to be done to correct this deficit in our education systems? It’s glaringly obvious that the apprenticeship model is not only still effective, but also very much needed. The current U.S. academic system, a product of 1914 originally established as a way to supply factory workers, is already outdated after a century.  Meanwhile, the mentor apprentice method of education has been around since the days of Socrates and Aristotle, was a key component in the successes of the Renaissance, and has never lost its value over time. How did we get so far away from proven educational methods that actually work?

Perhaps a more important question to be asked is: “What is the purpose of higher education in the first place?”  At the end of the day, I purport that its primary purpose is to equip people with the skills needed to earn a decent living and establish a rewarding career.  Under that definition, I know of no better educational system than the mentor/apprentice method.

If this is true, the next question is: who should provide this education?  The employers no longer wish to pay for extensive training for their new hires, and that trend isn’t likely to change soon. The President’s directives for rekindling the mentor/apprentice approach are admirable, but government programs take time and money to implement, and getting companies to get on board will likely take even more time. Meanwhile, to accommodate demand and for cost effectiveness, many apprenticeship programs currently in place tend to match multiple apprentices with a single mentor (which isn’t much more effective than a classroom of college students under a single professor). How do we re-establish an effective mentoring system for the 21st century?

My suggestion: tailor the trade schools around the mentor/apprentice approach.



Consider this: since most people rely on some form of structured higher education to prepare them for a career, why not restructure our educational institutions around the principles of apprenticeship?  If properly mentored students still have the advantage in the workforce, but the employers no longer wish to invest the money for it, why not devote a significant portion of the students’ tuition pay for the mentors to train them?

The benefits of this paradigm should be obvious:

  1. The employers and companies reap the benefits of better-trained employees without having to invest more money.
  2. The schools take a more active role in helping students make a connection with prospective mentors, rather than leaving the students to attempt it on their own.
  3. Potential employers find a larger pool of skilled and motivated employees (as demonstrated by the fact that the students are investing their own money into their mentoring).
  4. The older generation of skilled trades people gain a new revenue stream and are therefore motivated to pass their skills and knowledge to up-and-comers.
  5. The overall quality of education improves, leading more people into successful employment.

As the Chief Operations Officer for the Recording, Radio and Film Connection, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand the fruits of this particular approach. For over thirty years, this school has practiced a 100-percent on-the-job education approach by placing each of our students for professional apprenticeships in the radio, film and recording industries (and more recently, the culinary arts). Unlike many of our contemporaries, we have a strong commitment to ensuring each of our students is paired with a single mentor for one-on-one apprenticeship; the lion’s share of tuition goes directly toward providing learning materials and paying the mentors.  Our results have caused these industries themselves to take notice: we are helping over 70 percent of our students to move into productive, gainful employment within their chosen disciplines.

While few people dispute the value of apprenticeship in teaching new skills, the reality of American education today is that apprenticeship has lost its underlying support system. To bring it back for a new century, we need to find a new support system for it. Employers aren’t likely to invest in apprenticeship again unless they can see proven results over time, and our students simply can’t wait for government initiatives to kick in. In my view, it is incumbent on the schools themselves to take up the slack, to begin investing more smartly into their students’ futures by actively engaging current professionals in apprenticeship-based education.



1 Jacoby, Daniel. “Apprenticeship In the United States.” Economic History Association, EH.net (http://eh.net/encyclopedia/apprenticeship-in-the-united-states/)

2 Persing, Thomas E. “The Role of Apprenticeship Programs.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute (http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/pubs/A16/persing.html)

3 “Vocational Training in Germany.” Make It In Germany (http://www.make-it-in-germany.com/en/working/prospects-in-germany/vocational-training-in-germany/)

4 “FACT SHEET – American Job Training Investments: Skills and Jobs to Build a Stronger Middle Class.” Office of the Press Secretary, Whitehouse.gov (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/16/fact-sheet-american-job-training-investments-skills-and-jobs-build-stron)

5 Böll, Steven. “Skill Gap Bumps Up Against Vocational Taboo.” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2014 (http://online.wsj.com/articles/skills-gap-bumps-up-against-vocational-taboo-1410473392?mod=rss_Education)

6 Baer, Drake. “The World’s 2,325 Billionares Have These 14 Traits In Common.” Business Insider via Yahoo.com (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/14-mind-blowing-facts-worlds-204640399.html)


Written by Brian Kraft

Brian Kraft

For over a decade, Brian Kraft has been the C.O.O. and Head of Admissions for RRF, the largest mentor/apprentice based trade school in the United States with courses in audio engineering, filmmaking and radio broadcasting. During his tenure, graduates have achieved a 72% job placement rate directly into their preferred careers.

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