Forging Ahead: Apprenticeship in the 21st Century
Courtesy of the Mishler Family
College? Homeschoolers may be better prepared for it than many other college-bound teens, but that doesn’t mean they should automatically get sucked into the “college conveyor belt.” But if not college, what do we do with our bright, well-educated, well-socialized homeschooled students? Send ’em off to the salt mines? How about considering the apprenticeship model as an option, not just as a taste of the “real world” before college, but as a viable alternative to college?
In early 2007, Home School Legal Defense Association received nearly 100 responses to a survey on apprenticeships from some of our member families whose children are or had been apprentices, and from member families who had hired homeschoolers as apprentices. The stories we read—some are highlighted in this article—reflected a wide variety of ways to define apprenticeships and the types of apprenticeships available. Apprentices included homeschoolers (and homeschool graduates) ranging from ages 7 to 22, and apprenticeships were as informal as a few hours a week to a full-time, formal, on-the-job career track program.
Common throughout these stories was the goal of parents to incorporate practical vocational experience into their students’ homeschool program. And that practical experience is the essence of apprenticeship.
What is Appreticeship
What do we call what hundreds of homeschooled students do when they work part-time at the veterinary clinic for no pay as they prepare for a career in animal medicine? Or what about the 16-year-old homeschooler who has risen up the ranks at the barn from mucking stalls to training horses and hopes to have her own stable someday? Are these internships? Are they work-study programs? Are they career mentoring? Yes, they may be all these.
In the interests of simplicity, I think it best to use the term apprenticeship broadly and allow the circumstances to sort themselves out. Perhaps the Feds got this one right. They define the apprenticeship model as “on-the-job learning with related instruction and mentoring.”1
A Little History
During the United States’ early history (1608-1776), the colonists closely followed the European model of apprenticeship, which provided most skilled labor in the early colonies. (Apprenticeship is still a primary approach to career preparation for many European young people, even in the 21st century).
Courtesy of the Mishler FamilyPaul Mishler’s interest in blacksmithing led him to volunteer to work for local blacksmiths, which opened the door to a paid position and the potential for a career in welding.
Throughout history, young men and boys, usually starting between ages 10 and 13, were contracted or indentured for a designated period of years to work for a skilled tradesman. Girls and young women were also apprenticed, although not as frequently, in a variety of occupations including seamstress, milliner, and dairymaid, and eventually teacher and nurse. In exchange for their work, apprentices were generally paid a very low wage, provided with room, board, and other necessities, and were taught the trade secrets and the business of the master. In an 1810 “indenture” contract with a master weaver, Joseph Hillard promised to ”not haunt taverns or play houses, nor absent himself from his master’s service day or night.”2
Following the American Revolution, the United States’ demand for raw agricultural labor far outstripped its need for skilled tradesmen. Along with this change, masters began to offer higher pay rather than room and board. This new approach to apprenticeship created more distance between the master and apprentice. Changes in contract law made it easier for apprentices to get out of their indentured agreements, and the master-apprentice relationship came to increasingly resemble the modern employer-employee connection. These trends, along with other demographic changes, reduced the demand for traditional apprenticeship opportunities.
American industrialization created greater need for larger amounts of capital. This made it harder for an apprentice to start his own shop. Furthermore, many goods that had been produced by skilled craftsmen were now being produced in factories. Industrial labor was mostly unskilled and thus there was no need for any kind of long-term apprenticeship model for career development—one set of hands was as good as the next. This trend served a near death blow to the European concept of apprenticeship in the United States, and the use of apprenticeships declined from the early 1800s to the early 1970s.
However, the concept of apprenticeship remained a practical and effective method of teaching a trade to young people wherever it was used, and U.S. apprenticeships have been increasing since the 1970s.
The Modern Apprenticeship
Following the Great Depression, the United States Congress passed the Fitzgerald Act in 1937, giving authority to the Department of Labor to oversee a national apprenticeship program. Today the Federal Office of Apprenticeship (OA) coordinates with industry groups, state apprenticeship programs, and potential apprenticeship sponsors. Most state governments also have offices charged with coordinating and promoting apprenticeship programs.
In addition to working with industries to codify registered apprenticeship standards, these state and federal offices compile statistics about involvement in apprenticeship programs. They have identified over 900 apprenticeable occupations ranging from bricklayer and carpenter to e-commerce project manager and software developer. A report by the Office of Apprenticeship shows that from 2001 through 2005, the number of total “registered” apprentices remained steady at just over 400,000 active apprentices in over 27,000 apprenticeship programs.3 In 2005, over a third of these apprentices worked in the construction industry.4
These registered apprenticeships are formalized by standards created in partnership between the OA and specific employers and industry associations. The OA helps create a formal structure in the apprenticeship relationship, requiring registered apprenticeships to address a few specific conditions, including a schedule of work processes to be mastered, a schedule of increasing wages, proper supervision and mentoring, monitored work progress, and organized instruction.
While there are exceptions, a registered apprenticeship opportunity is explicitly structured to provide clear benchmarks, minimum classroom training, and frequent feedback to the apprentice over the course of an apprenticeship, which usually requires a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training with 140 or more hours of ongoing “classroom instruction.”
Apprenticeships, however, do not have to be supervised by a government agency to be legitimate. An apprenticeship is a concept in career development that simply matches a skilled professional with a typically younger and unskilled person for training, career development, and mentoring in a trade or profession.
An apprenticeship need not be “formal” in the sense that is “recognized” by the OA or by an official contract between apprentice and master. An informal apprenticeship that offers an opportunity for young people to gain practical insight regarding career and vocational calling can be just as relevant and helpful.
Why consider an apprenticeship?
When considering our children’s future, an important question we have to revisit is why do we homeschool? Do we homeschool so that our children will be able to earn more money? So that they will attain positions of influence and prestige? Or is it for some other purpose?
The primary reason my wife and I homeschool is to make sure our children are spiritually discipled into a right relationship with their Creator. And the second reason is to prepare them for the unique and individual purpose and plan that He has for their lives.
While, we as parents may have the opinion that college is the right choice for our children, we must keep in mind that God may have other plans. And if He does, we should be open to whatever alternatives our children are discerning in their lives rather than pushing them in a way that we think they should go.
“Blacksmithing started out as a skill that Paul was interested in learning,” says homeschool dad Scott Mishler. “It turned into a volunteer opportunity, then into a paying job, and now it seems to be leading to a career in welding. It’s very much been God’s path, not ours. Paul learned his craft by seeking out unpaid opportunities to hang out with other blacksmiths. He then began sharing the work as a volunteer. Six months later, the place he was volunteering for asked if they could hire him. He said yes!”
For some young people, an apprenticeship may be just a starting point. It may provide practical experience and a taste of an industry or occupation, which in turn lead to post-secondary education. For others, their chosen occupation, even if customarily staffed by those who have college degrees, may not actually require post-secondary education. Our openness as parents to allow and encourage our children to explore a wide range of approaches to vocational direction is important. Homeschooling parents care about providing their children with an education that is comprehensive and that gives them a strong foundation to follow their vocational calling.
But as important as developing a strong academic footing is, for many parents, developing a sure moral and spiritual footing is more important.
Knowing that wisdom and knowledge are not the same is one reason that homeschooling parents strive to weave together an education that provides a solid basis of academics and faith. Because they have more time together at home, homeschooling parents can help their children develop the character and competency that are essential to following their calling.
Apprenticeships can contribute positively to developing our child’s character. An apprenticeship takes a homeschooled student outside the familiar expectations and relationships of home and puts them in an environment where they have to work under the authority of others. This teaches important relationship and life skills they will need later in life. Working for a “real business” means they have to respond to “real concerns” of “real people” (as opposed to the “unreal concerns” of their siblings and parents!). While parents may have helped their children develop a good work ethic, an apprenticeship can help refine and cement these important attitudes and character traits. By interacting with new and different situations and people, children learn to adapt. They also learn to understand and manage the expectations of others, including their customers, managers, and co-workers, in ways that are not possible within the context of the family.
Benefits for younger apprentices include learning hands-on a variety of important life skills in a real world environment. Depending on the environment, apprentices will learn how to show up on time (you’ve heard the old saying that 90% of winning is just showing up, right?) and to be responsible and reliable. Apprentices learn to handle equipment, understand the craft or profession, manage other people, deal with customers, and hopefully grasp the value of a strong work ethic.
Regardless of whether the apprenticeship turns out to be a good match or not, the exploration process contributes to our children learning to match their own expectations to reality and discerning how God is leading them in pursuit of His plan for their lives. Learning to deal with the disappointment that the “job wasn’t quite what they expected” is an invaluable life lesson that can”t be learned too early. And where the job is a perfect fit, the child experiences joy in discovering how God has crafted them and how He works through all the details of our lives for His glory and our good.
Courtesy of the FamilyNow paid per article, 16-year-old Elias Cox began covering sports for the local newspaper on a volunteer basis. “He’s learning far more in the field than he would from books or from just writing for me,” says his mom, Giselle.
Sixteen-year-old homeschooler Elias Cox covers sports for his local newspaper. “This is what he wants to do for his career,” says his mother, Giselle Cox. “It’s only by Providence that he was able to write for a city newspaper at such a young age—he started at 15, for no pay. Now that he’s 16, he is paid per story. He hopes to continue doing this as long as possible, and I consider it part of his high school curriculum. He’s learning far more in the field than he ever would from books or from just writing for me. This will also test his interest. He plans, as of now, to be a journalism major.”
Even if your child has decided that college is the ultimate direction he or she wants to take, an apprenticeship can still be very helpful. If your student has an area of interest already, an apprenticeship might be a way to gain valuable experience that will help him confirm this interest, refine it, and get a head start on learning its practical aspects. Such practical on-the-job training is invaluable in helping your child gain an asset that all prospective employers look for-prior work experience.
But what about college?
Any method of learning a skill or profession requires an investment of time and money in differing proportions. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of college.
Emphasizing the benefits of college and the perspective that it is the best path to the future for every young person, presidential candidate John Edwards has developed a “College for Everyone” initiative as part of his campaign. And with no shortage of banks willing to grant loans guaranteed by the federal government, money for college is easy to come by.
But, is it better for high school graduates to start out with a positive balance sheet, debt-free, and with a skill, or is it better for them to start life with a sheepskin that costs tens of thousands of dollars and may translate into a good job? The answer to this question may be different for each of your children. For me personally, as a young army officer graduating from one of the most expensive colleges on the East Coast, I remember how much of my disposable income wasn’t available for savings or for other purposes. Because the value of money rises over time, saving at an early stage in life is of far greater value than saving later in life. I recommend considering the financial impact of forgoing these early years of working and saving, and measuring that impact against the cost and benefits of attending college.
By going to traditional college for four years, a student forgoes four years of wages (albeit primarily entry-level wages) and incurs four years of expense—added up, this figure can top $300,000. And college expenses aren’t getting any cheaper. (According to the Lawlor Group, a higher education think tank, the cost of higher education has consistently and significantly outpaced inflation since 1983.)5 Because many students gain little practical experience during college, their first job out of college will probably still be entry level, and it will take them a long time to pay off college debts.
While certainly some occupations and professions require the training and academics of higher education—including law and medicine or becoming a commissioned officer in the military—hundreds of other professions do not require a college degree. It is true that many managers today want to hire college graduates, but there are situations in which a qualified applicant for a particular job that doesn’t require a degree may be a competitive candidate if he has practical work experience and training.
As parents, we need to help our children make informed career decisions. For some young people, the financial investment of college might be a decisive factor in tipping the scales in favor of an apprenticeship model’s time investment instead.
But are there other reasons not to traipse through America’s landscape of higher education? In addition to the financial cost, we need to consider the potential spiritual or moral considerations associated with going to college. Certainly not all colleges immerse students in the full range and intensity of secular humanism and all that it offers. But there is no doubt that our students will be exposed to some moral, ethical, and spiritual hurdles, even if limited, and even if they attend a Christian college.
Can these hurdles be used for our children’s good, for their character development, and for the glory of God? Absolutely. And we certainly do not want to insulate our children from society—we want our children to be lights shining in a dark world. Nevertheless, it is important that we consider the full set of costs, benefits, and risks that go along with the college decision, including the potential spiritual, moral, and emotional costs that may be associated with a particular college or just going to college at all.
Courtesy of the FamilyAn important aspect of an apprenticeship is the opportunity to try out a career area. High school junior Jared Myerly receives hands-on training and experiences a variety of situations working with a local veterinarian.
When considering an apprenticeship with your student, several factors should be considered. How formal will the apprenticeship be? Is your child’s purpose in doing the apprenticeship primarily career exploration or career training? How will the apprenticeship be balanced with homeschooling and family needs? Will compensation be a component of the apprenticeship? How long will the apprenticeship last? What will happen at the end of the apprenticeship? What are the mutual obligations and responsibilities of the master and apprentice? The answers to these questions will depend on the individual needs of each master, apprentice, and the apprentice’s family.
An important first step is for both you and your child to determine his or her interests and vocational leaning. Even if a vocation requires college training, an apprenticeship can help confirm his interest and natural inclination toward a career area. Is your son a Lego builder who loves to take things apart and put them back together? Is he gifted at drawing and does he enjoy building? Is there a contractor in the area with whom he could work?
Is he ready?
Trying to figure out if children are ready for such a step may require some effort. On one hand, we don’t want to rush them into something that they aren’t ready for, but, on the other hand, an apprenticeship may be a chance to help them gain some of the maturity and seasoning they need. This is an important discussion to have with prospective masters. Some masters will be more willing to take on a younger, less mature apprentice who may require more oversight, and others will be more reluctant. At a minimum, your child should be prepared to responsibly and maturely follow instructions and be able to handle chores and tasks on their own without requiring too much follow-up.
Christa Burroughs, a homeschooled teen from California, was rewarded for her eagerness and diligence as a volunteer at a physical therapy clinic. “She asked if she could volunteer there and told them she would be willing to take out the trash, wipe down mats, or do anything else that would be helpful to them,” says Christa’s mother, Connie. “In just a few weeks they were teaching her how to help the patients with their treatments! It was a great experience for her.”
Taking Age into Account
When exploring an apprenticeship opportunity with younger students, it is critical to set clear parameters regarding the balance of school and work. Whether it is using math skills to count out change to a customer or measuring lumber or using language skills to read emails and respond to them, an apprenticeship will help demonstrate the real world value of what your children are learning at home. Nevertheless, it is important to work out a schedule with the master and ensure that the necessary educational objectives are being met.
It’s also a good idea to check the laws of your state regarding child labor. For an overview, go to www.hslda.org/ChildLaborLaws.
With an older student, depending on the apprenticeship, some of the work done might very well provide credit for high school coursework. For example, working on cars alongside a skilled mechanic at his repair center could provide automotive shop credit. Or working on architectural blueprints might serve as drafting credit. Volunteering at the veterinary clinic could serve as credit for a biology lab. Connecting learning to real life is what homeschooling is all about.
When homeschooler Megan McDonald’s horseback riding instructor offered to help her learn the horse business in depth, Megan and her parents jumped at the chance. Because Megan’s training would take up Fridays, Megan and her parents rearranged her school schedule to accommodate a four-day school week but a longer school year. “We knew it was going to be challenging for all of us, but an opportunity like this could not be passed up,” says her mother, Tracy. Megan’s instructor also offered to document Megan’s work experiences for high school credit. “This is a feather in Megan’s cap for the future, since she has decided to attend college for Equine Studies,” says Tracy.
While it is appropriate for the older apprentice to receive some form of compensation, he is, more importantly, receiving valuable training. As your apprentice demonstrates commitment and capability, the compensation and career will follow. While career exploration is perfectly appropriate for an older apprentice, a more involved and formal apprenticeship is also possible—especially if your homeschooler has already researched career fields and has been involved in an apprenticeship he likes.
When exploring possible apprenticeship opportunities, it is important to clarify what the apprentice will do and how much supervision he will receive. It is also wise to make sure that your child apprentices with a solid and reputable person. There are no guarantees for character and it is incumbent on parents to ensure that the well-being of their child is protected.
What Goes in Comes Out
The outcome of an apprenticeship program is in large part determined by the expectations and objectives established by the interaction between the apprentice, his family, and the master.
Perhaps the most important aspect of an apprenticeship program, regardless of the age and objective of the apprentice, is the opportunity to try out a career area.
High school junior Jared Myerly has apprenticed with a veterinarian for the past three years. “The veterinarian has been very good to allow our son to learn in and experience various situations,” says Jared’s mother, Rebecca. “His hands-on training, as well as the experience of dealing with animal owners, has proven invaluable already.”
Being able to spend eight hours a day swinging a hammer, running a sewing machine, fixing cars, shoeing horses, building websites, caring for animals, running a business, or cutting hair will give invaluable perspective to your apprentice about how he is gifted and if he really wants to pursue that career path. In many cases, a six-month apprenticeship can help save years of investment in classroom training when the apprentice learns she really likes to ride horses, but having to deal with all that’s involved in running a horse barn is just not her cup of tea. Or while doing that weekend project with Dad building the tree house was fun, but working as a carpenter 8, 10, and 12 hours a day is another matter altogether. These kinds of lessons can help redirect and refine our children’s understanding of their gifts and talents. How many of us would liked to have known what it really was going to be like as an accountant for that big public accounting firm or as a lawyer or as a mechanic? Perhaps an apprenticeship might have redirected and refined our understanding of our own gifting.
Wrapping it up
Deciding to get a child involved in an apprenticeship is an important decision. Carefully working through the various questions to find the right master and right experience can do a lot to help our children determine their vocational calling. As homeschooling parents, we have more flexibility to incorporate this experience into our children’s educational plan. By working with our children to guide them to the right apprenticeship opportunity, we can help them get a great start in their vocational calling.
Finding a Master
If you and your child are interested in apprenticeship, work together, with prayer and deliberation, to find the right opportunity. Keep in mind that it is unlikely that a young apprentice will receive monetary compensation. Here are some places to look for an apprenticeship:
Family. Are you in business for yourself? An apprenticeship can be as simple as bringing your son to work with you. For many homeschooling families, apprenticing is a way of life. Working in a family business is a wonderful way to weave family relationships and the business of life together. If you have a family farm or other kind of business, you already understand the pros and cons of living and working together as a family. In some cases, children will naturally be interested in the family business or your career. In other situations, the children may not show any interest.
Friends and relatives. For the younger child, an apprenticeship opportunity close to home will likely be more appropriate. But don’t ignore opportunities with family and friends who live farther away. If you have a close relative or trusted family friend who lives far away and has the ability to offer your child a work opportunity, this is worth considering. These friends and relatives will have a natural interest in helping shape your child’s experiences to help determine his vocational calling.
Community. Local business owners, farmers, and others in your local community and church may offer other opportunities for your child to apprentice.
Federal Office of Apprenticeship.
The National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors.
Vocational Information Center.
1 Office of Apprenticeship Training, “Strengthening Our Nation’s Workforce with Demand-Driven Solutions”, 2005.
2 “The Apprentice’s Indenture,” Museum of Childhood.
3 Office of Apprenticeship, “Statistics for FY 2001-2005,”.
5 Amy Foster, “When Market Conditions and Public Perception Collide: A Looming Crisis for Higher Education,” Lawlor Perspective, 2006. www.thelawlorgroup.com/