Back in the Industrial Revolution, workers were hired into a shop, learned the technical skill sets needed on the job, and worked – all at the same time. Many scholars are calling the time we’re in the Information Age, and the need for skilled workers to do things like write and edit code is akin to the sudden need the Industrial Revolution had for skilled workers. Although we’ve gotten better about working conditions, child labor laws, and other such things, we haven’t seemed to figure out that maybe we’re back to the need of apprenticeship in our culture.
James E. Zull, a Professor of Biology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Science at Cast Western Reserve University, points out that we have an unneeded wall between education and the workplace. He argues that in order to really teach the needed skills of the world, students need to be exposed to specialists while in the field:
[Students] need models…If this were so, schools would be viewed as ‘boundary-free.’ They would be less of a place and more a range of opportunities. The entire community should be available for discovering what experts actually do, what they care about, and how they work and learn. Apprenticeships and co-op activities might be the norm rather than the exception. ~ From brain to mind; Using neuroscience to guide change in education. (2011). pp 43-44.
Not every skill can be learned on the job and there is definitely a place for college-based education, but there is a loud cry for people to execute work that doesn’t require a 4 year degree. For example, the number of software developers needed in the field is expected to grow 22% between now and 2022, which is about 14% faster than the average job growth (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013), and more and more companies are hiring based on the programming experience over the weight of the degree. It’s why so many new avenues to learning code have cropped up. Just see Code Academy, Dev Boot camp, and Mobile Makers. People have figured out how to gain the training needed outside the price tag of a 4 year degree.
The information industry is hungry for workers, and I think apprenticeships are necessary in some of these fields. However, I think three things need to happen in order for us, as a society, to meet this demand:
- A separation between tactical skills and strategic competencies needs to be established in the educational structure. Many colleges and universities are struggling because they often teach theory and high-level strategy skill sets for an industry that may really need builders. If everyone’s a manager, who’s actually building the product?
- Additionally, we need to let go of the belief that a full-time 4 year degree education is the necessary step after high school. Why do the theory and managerial skills have to come directly after high school? Why can’t someone work in a field and then go back to gain the theory and managerial skills when s/he is ready to move into that role? The better approach would to get our young citizens working, and integrate education into the right times of their careers. If we preach life-long learners, we need to accept that education occurs at injected points throughout life, not lumped together into isolated years after high school.
- Students need to be willing to start as executors, and we need to celebrate those values. Many people dream of leadership roles, but that doesn’t mean everyone should start as a manager. There is much to be celebrated as one who executes the work and builds the product; we as a society should celebrate those values again. Not everyone can or wants to be a leader, and that’s okay.
For industries that need workers and executors, a suggested path would be:
- Student graduates high school and becomes an apprentice.
- Apprentice simultaneously learns and works on the job. Direct, tactical skills to build or execute. Grows to become strong worker and moves up the ranks.
- When worker is ready – or when company deems it – worker integrates theory and strategic competency education (usually via part-time degree program) to either increase skill set, get promotion, or is just generally ready/curious.
Regardless, the separation between education and industry needs to be re-evaluated – as there are many fields in which the 4 year full-time degree programs are not providing the industry with the needed workers. We need a new path to get students what they need and the industry the workers.