Exploring the Apprenticeship Option for Vocational Training

The years after World War II brought an interesting phenomenon to life in these United States. For the first time in the world’s history, college became the “thing to do” after high school for the rank and file of American citizens. The “GI Bill” made college accessible to millions who previously had considered higher education out of their reach economically, and college programs began to change from serious training institutions preparing young people for professional careers to general acculturation programs supposedly designed to enhance the quality of life.

Four decades of high school counselors preaching that college is a necessity in order to “get a good job” have generally obscured the fact that monetary success is often not directly related to owning a college degree. In fact, if monetary success is one’s goal, review of the Fortune 500 list would yield the startling reality that many of its members are high school dropouts!

Tragically, many families consider the enrollment of their children in a “good” college to be a sign that the parents have done a good job in rearing their children. A college degree is often cited as “the key” that unlocks the door to tomorrow’s opportunities, and it certainly can be that. However, it is not the only key, and for many young people the additional four to five years of schooling simply certify an extended passage from home to work without implying anything about skills, talents, experiences, or qualifications.

Far too many students in American society have no idea why they are enrolled in college, and for them college is simply an extension of their high school experience, effectively delaying them from the serious business of deciding what to do with their lives. Herbert Kohl summarizes this problem well: “Going to college means leaving home and having the opportunity of experimenting with independence without the obligation of working full-time to support oneself… College becomes a time in limbo, a time to be away from home and yet not in the world. It is a peer-driven culture, which professors have to fight in order to get students to take learning seriously.” [The Question is College, Random House, 1989]

With the proliferation of Christian colleges throughout the United States, the trend to send everyone to college also found its way into evangelical circles for “at least one to two years of Bible training” before pursuing career training. The reasonable cost of this exposure during the 1960s and 1970s (often only $1,000-$1,500 for room, board and tuition), coupled with the fact that most young people received their high school diplomas from secular institutions, made the Bible college experience attractive and viable for many young people. But colleges changed in the 1990s. Even the most economical Christian schools cost $7,000 to $12,000 per year for room, board and tuition, and private secular institutions can cost up to $16,000/year for tuition alone. Such an investment with the mere goal of achieving “rites of passage” for a young person is irresponsible at best, particularly in light of the fact that a majority of young people graduating from colleges today have little idea of their vocational interests and present to a prospective employer no guarantee through their earned credentials that they will be reliable, qualified, and effective employees.

How then does a parent lead a young person to a well-reasoned decision concerning how much and what type of post-secondary education training to obtain?

First, we need to recognize a few “givens” that are certainly not new to the home-schooling community.

  1. A high school diploma never signifies the culmination of a student’s education. The all-encompassing objective of a student’s high school education is to learn to learn. Learning should be a continuing life function, and students should come through their high school years having learned how to keep learning.
  2. The most important goal to be accomplished during the teen years is that sense of life purpose which starts a young person in his quest toward a fulfilling vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call.” For a Christian this inevitably involves understanding what God would have me do and committing myself to obedience as God reveals His direction. This understanding does not, however, preclude the fact that actual vocational decisions will change with time and experience, i.e. my first job responsibility probably will not continue for the remainder of my life.
  3. Formal study of academic material is made practical by interaction with real life problems. Learning confined to paper and pencil exercises and theoretical propositions not only causes students to lose motivation during the process but also actually inhibits maximum achievement. Arnold H. Packer [Education Week, May 27, 1992] explains that students need five “competencies” in order to make a smooth transition from “school to work”: ability to manage resources, work with others, acquire and use information, understand systems, and use technology. These abilities, of course, are added to productive levels of skill in reading, writing, mathematics, problem solving, and decision making. Mr. Packer argues that “students will work harder and learn more when they are engaged and understand why what they are studying is important and useful.” [4] Training of character qualities and developing a young person’s ability to see things around him from God’s perspective (the essence of wisdom) cannot be separated from academic and vocational skill development. (See II Peter 1:5-8.)

Second, we need to develop a clear definition of apprenticeship. Historically, apprenticeship connotes “training in an art, trade, or craft, under a legal agreement defining the relationship between master and learner and the duration and conditions of their relationship.” {Encyclopedia Britannica} European custom dating back to the Renaissance generally earmarked four stages in the apprenticeship hierarchy: novice, journeyman, craftsman, and master. As a beginner or novice, the indentured worker would start his learning responsibilities by fulfilling mundane necessities of everyday routine while observing the work of the experts. Gradually, he would learn the terminology of the trade, ask questions about procedures and develop “hands on” skills in the work. The craftsman and master (teacher) provided continual course correction as decisions were made and implementation became more complex. This first phase included mastering all the techniques involved in a craft and would thus be akin to a combination of “book learning” coupled with practical experience on the job. It usually took four to six years, depending on the difficulty of the selected field.

Technically, a college education, if appropriate to achieve the young person’s goals, constitutes a group effort to provide the elements of this stage of training. The difficulty with most college programs in our day is that the academic portion of the training is often not effectively interrelated with the “practicum,” and there is usually far too little opportunity for that practical experience.

The second phase required travel, hence the term journeyman. During these years the apprentice would work in several shops for extended periods of time to master specialized applications of the basic techniques in his chosen art. This stage of developing experience is analogous to a young musician traveling abroad to study with various artists or a medical college graduate working through internship and residency programs. A worker remained in the journeyman stage until the quality of his products (or services) allowed him to be recognized as a craftsman. In the trades, his remuneration level would reflect the productivity and work reputation he had achieved.

The craftsman is no longer an apprentice. During this stage, the worker essentially becomes the owner of his shop or a “professional” producer of goods/services in a larger context. He is able to introduce novices to his field, and in direct proportion to his ability to train others, he achieves recognition as a master.

While such a system of training the young is still effectively practiced in the trades, arts, and crafts throughout Europe, the American experience tends to favor “book learning” first followed by employment in entry level positions with little in the way of meaningful responsibility. Yet, even training for the professions benefits from a more active mixture of experience with classroom exploration. Thankfully, increasing numbers of employers are respecting the student portfolio that demonstrates a solid combination of academic training with job-related performance.

Third, we need to analyze our goals for each young person and commit ourselves to a prayerful and well-reasoned plan. Offered through Larry Burkett’s Christian Financial Concepts, Life Pathways and Career Direct are excellent evaluation programs which can help parents begin to identify a teen’s gifts, talents, interests, and affinities. Checking out the career orientation section of the local public library can offer many descriptions for varying vocational applications. If a young person is uncertain regarding a commitment to any one of the possibilities, working as a volunteer in organizations that might spawn an interest is very helpful in screening the acceptable from the distasteful.

Once a career field is identified as a definite direction, begin where the novices of old began. Obtain a list of common terms in that field, and have your student research each one in at least three sources. The goal is then to write a working definition of the term in the student’s own words. When this has been accomplished, you know that he has synthesized the information he has researched.

The next step requires locating a half dozen or so excellent providers of that product or service. Request from them the titles of the books which had the greatest impact upon them during their preparation for work. As your student reads each book, encourage him to highlight areas he does not understand and to interact with the author’s content material with your teen or provide Godly interaction from a member of the profession or trade studied.

As soon as the basic terminology is learned, begin to research appropriate places for your teen to work around people who function in the selected field. Often these doors of opportunity will come through being willing to volunteer services, such as custodial or clerical assignments. It is crucial that parents discuss the terms of employment thoroughly with the young person’s prospective boss (even if the arrangement involves no financial remuneration), clearly outlining goals and responsibilities and providing a means for evaluation.

Indicate to the prospective boss your teen’s interest and establish a prescribed forum for questions to be answered and direction in further study to be given. It is possible that you might even have to pay for the tutorial time you are requesting. One of the most important things to remember about apprenticeship is that this choice does not automatically exempt your family from any cost in “higher education.” Some of the money you would have spent in tuition will probably be required for the young person’s transportation, growing library of resources, tools of the trade or profession, and personal coaching.

Sometimes young people have to work in areas unrelated to their chosen field to generate the funds for their training. These seeming detours often have a very specific place in God’s plan for teaching your young person patience and diligence in prayer as he seeks God’s opportunities. It is possible that home study or correspondence courses are available to outline your progress in learning the field you have selected. The Distance Education and Training Council (formerly the National Home Study Council), 1601 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009, (http://www.detc.org/) offers an extensive list of such programs. Contacting state and national agencies that offer professional “fellowship” opportunities to people in the field you have selected could offer you lists of specialized training sources. Take care, however, that when participating in secular programs, you require your student to filter both subtle and overt philosophies through the grid of Biblical principles.

Teens who embark on an apprenticeship course of training will have to prepare a resume early on, so that they have a means of introducing themselves to prospective employers and providers of volunteer opportunities. Journaling is a crucial part of the record-keeping process for building an apprenticeship portfolio. A simple form that provides a young person with a slot to indicate the event of the day, how he met the challenge (what he said or did), what Scriptural principles may have been involved, what skills or knowledge he felt like he was missing as highlighted by the experience, and a simple plan of action for following through to gain that information, makes a worthy page for tracing apprenticeship progress. What a tremendous faith builder such a journal will become as evidences of God’s answers to prayer are logged!

Apprenticeship can include college courses, selected for their specific content and strategically placed in the young person’s schedule so that experience and book work can be properly balanced. These can be taken on the school’s campus or by correspondence, or their equivalent training can be obtained through a tutorial relationship with a “master” in the field. Document your work carefully and make provision for outside evaluation whenever possible. As your teen moves through his apprenticeship experience, you will find that the balance of responsibilities will shift from primarily academic content (terms and basic textbooks) to primarily “hands on” applications. However, in true apprenticeship there is never a time when the work should be exclusively textbook and research or exclusively “hands on.” The secret to effective apprenticeship is a constant blend of both.

But when do you graduate? When are you finished with the program? Contrary to most of society’s assumptions, a college degree does not signify the finish line. That’s why they call the graduation ceremony “commencement.” Just as the journeyman of old became a craftsman when the quality of his work was reputed to be professional (judged by who would buy it), so your teen’s days of “craftsmanship” will be recognized.

In some fields and with some young people it will come sooner; others will take more time. Some fields will require special examinations for licensure; others will demand corroboration by those in the profession. For some endeavors laws will have to change to bring about recognition of apprenticeship as a viable training model, and God may be calling your family to blaze one of those trails. If we are committed to obedience, we cannot fail our children.

The choice between apprenticeship and college is not necessarily a choice between right and wrong. God must direct the steps of each person. Following His plan will bring confidence and blessing. “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:24)

Copyright ©1998, Education PLUS+. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Mentoring Your Teen: Charting the Course to Successful Adulthood by Dr. Ronald Jay and Inge Cannon. Education PLUS+, P.O. Box 1350, Taylors, SC, 29687, www.edplus.com. Used by permission.