Help Wanted: Apprentice to learn trade

I have taken the “non-traditional path” in both my education and career. At age eight my parents discovered my aptitude and (more importantly) interest in programming. My mother was always learning new things and as a result when she got our first computer and started to learn to program it gave me access to everything I needed to teach myself.

I remember vividly when she purchased our first modem it was a 150 bits per second acoustic coupler. To put this in perspective COMCAST’s lower tier is 106 times faster than my first network connection. Even then it was painfully slow but it opened an entire new world to me – one I never knew existed.

At some point that year I decided I wanted to host a Bulletin Board System of my own (a BBS is very similar to a forum website today) so I asked my parents to buy me the software and telephone line to do this — they of course laughed and said no after all it would cost close to $1000 just for the software.

I had read enough of my moms programming books that I realized that I didn’t need to buy the software I could just make it myself. As a child my mother would always tell me “No does not mean no. It means find another way.” so thats what I did. I completed every exercise in every programming book she had along with a few others from the local library and set off to make my own BBS.

I made very quick progress. I implemented forums, chat, multiline, a download library, ZModem, XModem and more. I remember printing out the source on reams of continuous feed paper using our dot-matrix printer. My father heard the printer going for quite a while so he came in to stop me because he thought I was wasting ink and paper. As an aeronautical engineer by training and former Air Force officer even though he was not a “computer guy” after a few minutes of looking at what I was printing he recognized what I had accomplished and immediately he and my mother began the process of getting get me in programming  classes at the local colleges.

This moment was probably the most significant contributor to where I am today. It was possible because I was lucky enough to find myself in a situation I was given:

  1. Access;
  2. Direction;
  3. Challenges;
  4. Support.

This set me up for what I now think of as a series of unpaid internship and apprenticeships. I helped my professors and teachers teach their classes, grade homework, help students and create courseware. I also helped a few small businesses create automation to help with inventory management and invoicing — all for free.

The system of apprenticeships has been around since the middle ages. A cobbler might teach their children or someone else’s (in exchange for pay) their trade.  In essence these experiences allowed me to learn my trade.

My parents wanted nothing more than for me to go to University and get a degree. The problem was the independence of the path I was on made it hard for me to do give up control and go this route. I also wanted to learn everything I could about computers, programing, applied cryptography, security and realistically not even the most prestigious schools had much to offer in these areas at the time.

This resulted in me dropping out of high school and college where I was taking classes that interested me. My parents didn’t exactly approve and I was a bit rebellious at this point in my life so I got a job in technology and moved out.

This choice came with a set of unique challenges; for example some who looked at my resume would ask “Where did you get your graduate degree?” and when they heard I didn’t even have a diploma many would essentially look the other way. Fortunately computers were still relatively new and I was able to demonstrate my raw abilities which meant I still had plenty of opportunities I just had to look a little harder.

Two years after I moved out my first son came along. At this point I understood the benefits and challenges of the path I had chosen for myself but like all parents I wanted more for my children. I remember watching a television show called Gilmore Girls which was about a single mom who had her own realization along the same lines. She was also a drop-out but decided her daughter would go to University so she could have the benefits that path represented but still wanted her daughter to embrace the benefits of her personal approach to life.

I had decided this is what I wanted for my own children. But as they say they say “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and my oldest is on a path much closer to my own. He finished high school and moved on to being a software developer in Silicon Valley.

As a parent if my goal was to “get him into University” I made a fundamental mistake. That is by exposing him to an extensive computer science education at home by the time he was ready for college the only schools that looked challenging in computer science were out of reach due to admission requirements. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable of the better scores and grades that were necessary to get into these schools but instead we got him unpaid internships where he could hone his skills and his grades suffered as a result.

Is this a failure in parenting? A failure in the school system? A little of both? Probably a little of both but a parent’s goal should not be to “get their children into university”. There are lots of ways to find success but what is important that we help them have choices in life and find happiness. The path he is on gives him that and while I still hold out hope that he goes to university the reality is he has the job that most Computer Science graduates dream of after four years of university and doesn’t have the associated debt.

Don’t get me wrong — there are many merits to University (which is why I think he should still go) but the reality is it is not the only path to success.

I bring all of this up because the other day Bill Gates, someone I really admire, blogged about the abysmal college completion rates.  In this post there is a quote that stands out:

By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.

As a hiring manager in technology I know how hard it is today find people with the right skills and experiences to build products and services the market demands (Don’t get me started on our visa system!). As a parent I also know the school system is still failing our kids so this talent drain is surely going to get worse.

With that said I think we are not looking at the problem holistically. There are lots of ways to get the skills that are necessary to have options in life — Universities do not have a monopoly on success. Thats not to say University isn’t a good option or that there are not careers where a degree is both useful and/or necessary. It is just that there are lots of ways to get our children choices and we should be embracing them as well.

In my mind the apprenticeship is still one of the best ways to get a practical education. It works exceedingly well in technology. I also know a number of lawyers who have passed the bar without having gone to law school as well as a number of small business owners who essentially got their start as apprentices.

Unfortunately the unpaid apprenticeship is under attack and when combined with recent living wage initiatives it makes it hard for those with the interest and skills to offer these apprenticeships. This the most damning element of this attack is a court has ruled that an employer can derive no immediate advantage as a result of the relationship.

Now to be clear I am not arguing the path I went on is right for everyone and I am a believer in formal education (my great grandmother and wife were teachers) but we have to look at this problem more holistically than we have been if we want to help our children and grandchildren to have choices.

6 thoughts on “Help Wanted: Apprentice to learn trade

  1. Sam Rushing

    In Germany they have a successful non-uni track that supplies their labor markets with highly trained people. I think that computer programming (and computer programmers) are uniquely suited to some kind of institutional vocational training. But we may be too late already, things like Khan Academy may save the day without restructuring society.
    I’ve known several extremely successful computer folk who skipped the college track – and obviously made the right choice.

    1. rmhrisk Post author

      Yeah. I think the german system is a step in the right direction. While I am thrilled with resources like Khahn Academy it doesn’t address the Direction and Challenges component so we still need (IMHO) additional external forces to support this model.

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  3. @ultimape

    Most of the colleges I was looking to apply at had internships as a core part of their education. These days employers don’t want fresh grads with no real world work – too much of a gamble. The status quo in many tech job markets now often expects an entry level position to have 2 years experience and a degree.

    but these valuable industry experiences cost money. As most of the positions were effectively full time jobs, Working 40-60 hour weeks for free, while simultaneously racking up college loan debt. I got the impression that many employers were using these position as a source of free labor and not as a learning opportunity like it should have been. Lots of people were getting fucked over and not getting the kind of education you are talking about here.

    Shame when good things get ruined by bad actors.

    For some perspective, when you were taken on as an apprentice blacksmith, the blacksmith took you in, housed you, fed you, and generally supported your welfare for the duration of the apprenticeship. Since we don’t do that anymore as a society, it makes some sense for an apprenticeship/internship position to include at least a minimum required for accommodations.

    This is basically what i’ve been doing with internship with Eris Industries and I’m very happy to have been given the opportunity. As a remote developer, I’ve really only asked to have my food and lodging covered so that I might have the time to learn and contribute like an apprentice position ought to. Without their willingness to cover that, I would not be able to take on the roll.

    IMHO, this kind of situation is the kind of thing a guaranteed basic income would help with. Most pilot studies on the subject show a large increase in the time spent learning skills and education. It makes a lot of sense.

    1. rmhrisk Post author

      Thanks for writing.

      First let me stress that I think the current situation of education is far from ideal. The student loan business is worth over 1.2 trillion a year and what are these kids getting from these loans? In some cases it’s the right choice but in a large number of them it is not and they would be better served via an alternate model.

      The long and the short is we sell young people a bill of goods when we tell them the only way to be successful is to mortgage their future for a degree that often times does little to improve their “employability”.

      Appreteships offer an alternative that for the right people can offer the same or even greater returns.

      To your comment about historically apprenticships coming with room and board this is true but the apprentice and their families often paid for the apprenticships which is what covered those costs (

      As for needing to make ends meet during an apprenticeship I agree it’s necessary but the converse issue is that much of the “free labor” in a non-paid internship provides comes at significant cost to the business. The rising minimum wage laws change the calculus for a business making it hard for them to gamble on a unskilled young person when for the same amount or slightly more they can get someone with a more experience.

      This is especially true in tech when offshore skilled talent is often available for the “new minimum wage” in some regions.

      Under the new parameters I wouldn’t have a chance to have had the career I have had and that reduces opportunity for the “new generation”.

      As for the “bad internships” I know they exist but I would also argue that these same experiences are valuable to those who work them. You learn from all things.

      1. rmhrisk Post author

        I should also ad the post probably sold the unpaid angle a bit too much. In my case they were not paid but paid apprenticeships are great also. In general I think a model supporting apprenticeships of any kind along with skill based decision making on hiring is better for everyone we just need to be careful not to raise the price of supporting these models so they are no longer an option for young people and employers.


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