If you need proof that “everything old is new again,” consider apprenticeships. They started in the early Middle Ages. Blacksmiths and cobblers took in young men (yes, men) and provided them with room, board and training in their craft. Leonardo daVinci learned painting through the apprenticeship system. Benjamin Franklin apprenticed as a printer and published Poor Richard’s Almanac before moving on to other endeavors.

Industries with a strong union presence, like building trades, have continued to offer apprenticeships. Ironically, the equation of “apprenticeship” with “union” has perhaps limited the spread of apprenticeships to other industries, like manufacturing, where they’re a natural fit.

Here’s what I love about the current notion of apprenticeship: They require employers to really analyze, understand and define the skills and aptitudes required for success on the job. That’s a stark contrast to many occupations where a vague assumption that someone with a college degree in a specified major will become a good fit after a couple of hours of on-boarding.

Of course, in the old days, the assumption was that staying on the job for three years, or five, or seven, would turn someone into a skilled craftsman, even without good supervision or formal training. Happily, those days are gone.

So why aren’t apprenticeships more popular? Why does the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s goal of 1000 apprentices seem “aggressive” when many Minnesota colleges and universities have far more than a thousand freshmen cuing up every fall?

I think it’s because, oddly enough, a college degree seems like a “sure thing,” while an apprenticeship seems risky. Apprenticeships are only available to new and incumbent workers. You get the job first–an entry-level job, one that probably doesn’t pay much and doesn’t offer much intellectual challenge. You spend a few months proving that you have the aptitude, the commitment and the brains to follow a career path. Then you get into the apprenticeship track, and you put in three or five or seven years. Yuu work full-time and probably put in some class time at night or on weekends, before you get that coveted, nationally recognized certification.

The thing is, you’re getting paid the whole time for the work you do. Employers often cover tuition, with the help grants from programs like Learn, Work, Earn or the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative. And as you work and study throughout the apprenticeship period, you’re moving gradually up the ranks in pay and job challenges.

Another limitation of some of the traditional apprenticeships is that they’re narrowly channeled. Say you complete two years of apprenticeship as a carpenter and decide you really want to be an electrician. You start at ground zero.

With apprenticeships in manufacturing, you have a range of career options that branch out from the journey worker certification. You can go into sales, management, engineering or quality control. And you’re likely to be better at any of those jobs because you had the hands-on experience.

Yes, I support the proposals now in place to make post-secondary education more affordable. But I wish we’d hear more about the paths to free education, including on-the-job training, that are already here.

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